"[When I was young,] I looked around myself and saw that my contemporaries did not understand life, or themselves, as I did. My experiences had hardened me, accustomed me to the idea that who you were yesterday is not the same as who you are today. It is more difficult to fear death, more difficult to fuss over questions like the meaning of life, when you accept the small reality that just living day to day, year to year is in its own way a slow death. I am not the girl who made my original contract; that girl lives on only in my memories, and it is up to me to honor her memory."
"Perhaps only in a timeless realm will I meet that girl again…"
— Akemi Homura, excerpt from A Life with Cause, unpublished manuscript found in personal files.
"But the real Self is as hard to arrive at as the real table, and does not seem to have that absolute, convincing certainty that belongs to particular experiences."
— Bertrand Russel, The Problems of Philosophy.
"Careful, careful…" Volokhov repeated unnecessarily.
If Asami's forehead wrinkled any further, it might never unwrinkle, Ryouko thought to herself. It seemed almost unfair, that she could just stand and watch while Asami struggled to stabilize the wormhole Ryouko had left behind while teleporting.
Well, "stand" was an inaccuracy. It was more that she had braced herself into a corner as she watched Asami float in the gravity‐free room, hands hovering over an apparition of purple and black like she was manipulating a sorcerer's orb.
The "orb" itself resembled an odd amalgamation of the singularity Asami wielded in battle, the squid wormhole, and a multi‐spectral light show. It oscillated wildly back and forth, emitting light chaotic in every frequency, turbulent around a dark, black hole heart.
Around them, she could hear machinery humming, and glowing blue motes of exotic matter floated in a small swirl around Asami, barely kept in containment by the gravity generators and Asami herself, so unstable otherwise that both their soul gems were being kept in a shielded container outside the room, just in case.
She fed the motes into the orb slowly, one by one, with an intensity Ryouko found oddly mesmerizing to watch, both with regards to the metaphysical display of magic and science, and the sheer focus which Asami was applying to the task, undistracted by any of the equipment she was wearing. She supposed it was only natural that Asami would feel at home in a vacuum suit, given her training.
But only a moment later the orb collapsed, motes of exotic matter spinning outward, only barely avoiding Asami herself.
Asami stayed focused a few seconds longer, helping shepherd them back safely into a collector in the center of the ceiling, before slumping down slightly and letting out a long, frustrated noise.
"It's alright," Volokhov said, voice transmitted directly into their heads. "This is far more progress than I ever expected in only a few days. We can take a break."
By which he meant, of course, that Asami could take a break. They shuffled over to the airlock, and Ryouko grabbed the other girl by the shoulder as the air streamed in.
"There's no rush," she said, voice muffled in the low‐pressure atmosphere.
"The sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can be out of this station," Asami said. "I know you don't like being here."
"It's alright for now," Ryouko said, shaking her head. "These experiments are pretty immersive."
"For now," Asami repeated skeptically.
A moment later their suits began to drop off, helmet unhinging off the top as the various pieces released their locks and began to separate, working their way off before dropping to the floor, each one collected adroitly by small worker drones that skittered off as they watched.
The opposing door unlocked shortly after.
They found Azrael on the other side, leaning sideways against the wall with arms crossed and—much to their surprise—wings tucked behind her back. Eri and Elanis stood vaguely awkwardly by her side, obviously nonplussed by the rainbow‐colored feathers.
I'm just letting everyone assume it's a magical girl thing, Azrael thought, answering the unspoken question.
"Were you watching?" Asami asked.
Ryouko had been surprised to still see her around after Mami left. She had assumed that Azrael would be gone shortly thereafter, but apparently Mami had left her there to "keep an eye on them", whatever that meant.
"So you've been briefed on what this is all about?" Ryouko asked.
"Generally speaking," Azrael said, making a vague shrugging motion. "Do you know what the value of a long‐range teleportation would even be? Or are you not allowed to say?"
"It's not so much that I'm not allowed to say as I don't really know," Ryouko said. "We're just waiting to see how it turns out."
Azrael made an affirming noise, seemingly unsurprised by what had been said.
As Azrael stood there, apparently trying to decide what to say, Ryouko became abruptly aware that they had been standing idly in the hallway, without obvious purpose.
"Well, anyway," Azrael said, rubbing the back of her head with one hand. "I've heard something about the reasons why you're here, and now that I'm here too, Mami and I agree that it'd be a good idea for me to talk to you."
"Why I'm here…" Ryouko echoed emptily, buying time to think through what Azrael meant.
The genetic modifications, Azrael thought, letting the thought broadcast to Asami and her bodyguards as well. I'm not sure if Volokhov is in the know, so…
Ryouko looked the other girl in the eyes, remembering then how she and Asami had felt quietly sorry for Azrael when they first met her, what seemed like so long ago on their way to the planet San Giuseppe. There was still plenty to feel sorry about, but it occurred to her for the first time that they had something in common now.
She realized, too, that she had come to see Azrael not as some kind of freak, but only as a bit of an idiosyncratic loner, who just happened to have spines on her back and be able to fly. She had heard of magical girls who had radically inhuman secondary forms… in the end, what difference did it make whether the spines had originated from magic, or genetic manipulation?
And yet one was readily accepted everywhere, while the other had to be kept secret at all cost.
"Let's get some dinner then," Azrael offered. "We can go to my room."
There was an awkward moment as the group exchanged glances, and it became clear she didn't mean for Eri or Elanis to be involved. Their status had become somewhat murkier in recent days—without anything to really guard against, the expectation that they always lurk in Ryouko's vicinity without actually being her friend conflicted with everyone's social instincts. Ryouko felt guilty, since it was obvious they felt left out, the strange mixture of power relationships and responsibilities combining dissonantly.
At least they'd stopped fighting with each other, Ryouko thought as they walked down the corridor, the two girls following at a respectful distance. They just felt so much younger than Ryouko or Asami, despite being approximately the same age.
"I would have invited them," Azrael said, almost the exact instant the door closed behind them, "but I wanted to talk in private. It's obvious they're supposed to be keeping you company. Maybe we can do a tea and cakes thing or something later."
Ryouko nodded vaguely. She was surprised to see that Azrael's room was not any worse in its amenities than Mami's had been, and indeed even seemed a bit larger than that, but the point of that became obvious when Azrael unfurled her wings fully, her presence immediately dominating the room.
Before Ryouko had even managed to react, Asami was next to the wings, peering intently.
"Can I touch it?" she asked.
"Ah, sure," Azrael said, nonplussed.
Ryouko took a seat as she watched Asami stare intently at a feather. She felt a pang, remembering how she had once envied her friends in school for having topics that truly fascinated them.
"Who made these?" Asami asked. "They seem very similar to bird feathers I've seen, and I know they're artificial."
Azrael looked uncomfortable, closing her eyes.
"It was a gift from one of the other survivors of the colony," she said, just as Asami was about to apologize for asking. "I only had one pair myself, but the others weren't ever going to use theirs again, so I kept them. I don't usually wear the rainbow one, but I like to do it occasionally in memory. Aurelia never really had great taste in color."
She paused for a moment, then sat down onto the floor, angling her body so that she leaned back onto her wings, using them to brace herself against the floor. It looked awkward, to Ryouko's eyes.
"It's actually easier for me to sit this way than it is in a chair, even with the wings off," Azrael said. "I always have to kind of hunch over to avoid aggravating the spines. Back in my colony, we used to have specially‐shaped chairs that worked for us, but now I have to either get my own, or live somewhere with self‐shaping furniture."
"Isn't that what we have here, though?" Asami said, purposefully sitting in a chair that had just been assembled.
"Yeah, I just wanted to make the point," Azrael said. "The founders thought about redesigning us so we would be comfortable perching, like birds, but most of us thought that was unnecessary."
They were silent for a moment, Azrael's seemingly odd choice of topic weighing down on the conversation. It was obvious she wasn't done, that the topic was meant to lead somewhere.
Azrael smiled vaguely.
"Okay, so I'll be honest, this is kind of a difficult conversation for me. Mami summoned me here because I'm a telepath, and then asked me to talk to you about your genetic modifications, I suppose because I myself am genetically modified, at least relative to most humans. I… honestly don't think that really makes sense, since I was born among people who were the same as me, and was forced to join a society with different people. It's not really the same situation."
Ryouko wasn't sure what to say, and settled instead for shifting uneasily. She had thought about Azrael's "condition" relative to her own already, and had reached much the same conclusion. Azrael's life was objectively harder than hers, but at least she had the assurance that her own brain wasn't part of some elaborate conspiracy. Ryouko was, if anything, assured of the opposite.
"How did you cope, then?" Ryouko asked, swallowing her misgivings in order to ask the question. "I know you said the situation isn't really the same, but I think it'd still be useful to hear."
"That's what Mami said, too," Azrael said, her eyes taking on a briefly distant look. "I guess I can see the logic behind that."
She put her hands on the table.
"Let's do it this way, I think. I'll tell you about how I tried to cope, and then you can tell me about any problems you've been having. Does that make sense to you?"
Ryouko nodded. It seemed like a bloodless way of approaching the problem, but she suspected neither she nor Azrael really had a better idea for the matter.
"It might seem a bit of a tangent, but what I came to realize in the years after my wish was that there is a very important difference between what everyone says they believe, and what they actually believe."
She stopped, weighing her next words carefully.
"For example, the radicals in my colony always said that they believed the existing leadership was too conservative, that they were too tied to the existing human form and didn't really believe in the cause. They probably did believe that, but what they were really worried about was something else."
She took a meaningful breath, and spoke methodically, casting her eyes between the two of them.
"I studied the files Governance was able to recover from the colony, because I was responsible for helping the sociologists understand what had gone wrong. Of course, the whole idea was that Governance would eventually find us, and that our example would drive a change in ideology. Idealistic, but we knew, somehow, that Governance often let pacifist rogue colonies stay in place, and would even provide some minor support, in exchange for allowing some monitoring to stay in place. That was an acceptable alternative. But…"
She gathered her thoughts.
"Many of the radicals controlled the production and trade of essential goods, things we were in short supply of," she continued. "They were afraid the leadership would make contact and ruin their livelihoods, and they were antagonistic to the idea of Governance finding us."
"So your colony was blown up because of greed and a power struggle," Asami said, with a hint of distaste Ryouko knew meant much more than that. "How stupid."
"That's a big oversimplification," Azrael said. "There were many factions, and this was just one reason. But, it was a reason."
She tilted her head, smiling.
"In a way, that's human nature," Azrael said. "And while Governance has tried, and claims, to be better than that, there are many ways it is the same. For example, ironically, on the topic of human modification."
She paused dramatically, making sure the others heard what she had said, before continuing:
"Governance says that it believes the human form is something we should cherish and hold onto as the legacy of those who came before us, and for this reason it claims that it suppresses the most radical human modifications. I won't try to judge just how committed they are to that argument, and I certainly concede most Governance Representatives seem to believe what they are saying. That being said, I have had the occasion to see first‐hand how Governance treats rogue colonies and genetic modification, and I've reached the conclusion Governance really doesn't care as much as they say they do."
She let that sentence hang in the air for a moment, then continued.
"Our leaders were right, partly: Governance is perfectly happy to let a rogue colony of modified humans live in peace. They were also wrong, because Governance would never tolerate anyone in the main colonies ever finding out about it. Part of it is balancing ideology with pragmatism, in case some disaster occurs to normal humans. Part of it is the simple calculation that a population that is genetically similar is a population that is easier to predict and easier to control. Even with all its simulations and surveillance, Governance knows it can't control all the variables, so it does what it can to keep the number of variables low. Even if it's just a membrane over the eyes."
To accentuate her point, she slid closed the inner, nictating membrane of her eyes, casting them in a cloudy, almost alien yellow.
Ryouko couldn't help but feel oddly uneasy about what Azrael was saying, and, looking over, she could see that Asami was as well. It certainly struck her that Azrael was hardly a disinterested party in this particular line of thought, and that she had presented no real evidence for anything she had said, except for an assertion about Governance policy she conceded had another explanation.
"So what exactly are you saying?" Ryouko asked, deciding not to challenge Azrael's assertions directly. "I'm sorry to be too direct about this, but what does this have to do with how you coped with everything?"
Azrael looked taken aback, then spoke carefully:
"To me, the first step to handling my situation, even to some degree, was simply understanding. It gave me some solace to know why everything had happened to me, and who was responsible, given that they were all dead and there was no one to get revenge on. And, you know, it helped me feel better about the devil's deal I made with Governance, to know exactly why they behave the way they do. Rationally, it is difficult to be angry at them, when they behaved better than your own leaders did."
"You could argue that if it weren't for Governance policy, your parents would never have been forced to leave in the first place," Asami commented, rather insensitively in Ryouko's opinion.
"I know, but then I would never have been born," Azrael said, with a hint of a smile. "It's hard to be angry about something like that."
She said it jokingly, but her voice was distant, and Ryouko sensed that she didn't really mean it. She wondered if Azrael was really as over it as she seemed to be trying to project.
Maybe she wants to convince herself as much as she wants to convince you, Clarisse thought.
Azrael shook her head at herself.
"This sounded a lot more coherent in my head. What I'm trying to say is, I've come to realize that there is no one really worth blaming, and I'm more the victim of circumstance than anything. We all are, even people like Mami, or Governance itself. No matter how much power we get, there are too many variables. Maybe only the Incubators are immune."
She spread her wings outward slightly, before closing them again.
"In the end I decided that there was no sense getting stuck worrying about what happened in the past, and what I can't change. It's better to focus on what I can change, and what I can do in the future. Or at least, that's what I've tried to decide, but actually doing it in practice is… well, it's harder."
She looked subdued for a moment, and it seemed to Ryouko that she needed to say something, or at least ask a question.
"So what did you do then?" Ryouko asked. "What did you change?"
"I asked for more freedom," Azrael said. "A place of my own, somewhere where I could fly, and longer breaks. I asked to be able to show my wings more, as long as I told people I was a magical girl. I pointed out that just because I had made a deal didn't mean Governance could use me like an indentured servant. It's their own ideology. After all, I know that Governance considers me human, because they consider AIs human. It makes no sense to worry so much about form, when so many of their constituents have no form. And they gave it to me, just because I asked."
Azrael's expression seemed briefly so wistful, and happy, that Ryouko couldn't help but want to ask, but Azrael answered the question before it was even posed, and this time Ryouko doubted it was telepathy.
"I was so happy, if you can understand it," she said. "In the end, the chains were in my own heart. I don't even blame Governance, or the MHD. I can see now that they thought I could only find consolation in my work, and that it was perhaps better for me to stay on the job, until I found peace somehow. I don't have peace, but I have… something."
Ryouko realized then, that somehow Azrael had ended up talking about something other than just body modification and mysterious brain parts. Instead, there was something deeper here, something about Azrael's life itself.
She glanced at Asami, who had her forehead furrowed in thought at something. She had noticed it too, she thought.
"Given what you've said, then, what do you suggest I do?" Ryouko asked, perhaps the most straightforward question she could muster.
Azrael, who had leaned forward over the course of her previous statements, sat back, and it was clear that she had failed to expect the question, lost instead in her own past.
"Well, the mystery brain part is certainly a problem, isn't it?" Azrael said. "At least I don't have to worry that my wings are going to up and betray me."
Azrael's hair trembled slightly, waving behind her, and it occurred to Ryouko for the first time that it, too, was different from the generic human version, seeming to have even more fine control than usual.
"That was really two different questions, wasn't it?" Azrael pointed out. "On the one hand, there's the narrow question of what to do about the thing in your head, and I don't think anyone knows what to do about that, other than wait a bit longer for results to come in, and keep you around in case of further study."
She paused meaningfully, catching Ryouko's eye.
"But I sense you're also asking about something more general," she said. "Not just what to do about the modifications, but what to do, period. Am I right?"
Ryouko nodded, carefully, wondering if Azrael was using her telepathy or not.
"I think Governance, and the other interested parties, are as conflicted about you as they were about me, perhaps even more so," Azrael said. "I doubt anyone ever anticipated not even being able to know what the modification is for, and in that case every decision is potentially unethical. They can't remove it without risking hurting you, can't let you get involved in anything important without risking important secrets, can't keep it secret without breaching your self‐determination, can't tell you without risking your stability. It's stormy skies to navigate, and it's not surprising they chose to isolate you somewhere remote."
"They still let me see this top secret research lab," Ryouko said, "and they let me close to Mami."
"I doubt anyone anticipated what Mami would do," Azrael said dryly. "But yes, it seems some people aren't as worried about the thing in your brain as others, which is an interesting observation in and of itself."
"Your soul gem did grow it back in the new body," Asami said. "Like they said, that's strong evidence the modifications aren't actually that malicious."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily doing something you'd want it to do," Azrael replied.
She looked thoughtful abruptly, as if something had just occurred to her.
"Anyway, that's not where I was going with this," she concluded finally, even as Ryouko was still deciding whether to press her for her thoughts. "What I was trying to say is that, like me, you may be overestimating the certainty of the players involved. Maybe all it takes is for you to express a strong opinion about what you want. It's a lot less moral keeping a prisoner who doesn't want to be in their prison, after all."
Azrael's words hung in the air there, as Asami nodded silently, putting pressure on Ryouko to say something. It made sense, of course. Ryouko was only here because Mami had assigned her here, and that in itself was a measure to mollify those who wanted to keep her safely isolated. Expressing her opinion might very well shift the weight on such a vague set of motives, as Azrael suggested. But…
"It's difficult to know what you want, isn't it?" Azrael prompted. "Obviously, I can't answer that question for you, and it's not exactly an easy question. But everything starts with that. In this modern world, it's pretty much the only question the government and powers‐that‐be don't answer for you. And I think we'd all much prefer they don't try. So what do you want?"
Ryouko had been anticipating the question, but still hadn't composed a particularly good answer. She could feel the eyes of the others on her.
"Like everyone else, I'd like to know what is going on with what's in my head," Ryouko said. "Even if it's terrifying, I'd like to know so we could at least try to remove it. In the worst case scenario, they could always move my soul gem to a new body and try to prevent it from regrowing. Maybe talk to someone capable of manipulating souls, if there even is someone like that."
She looked around at the others, to make sure she hadn't said anything too ridiculous. She found Asami making an expression of concern, but couldn't tell if something was really wrong.
Nonetheless, she finished:
"But I can't exactly make that go any faster. About the only thing I can do is make sure I'm available for further study if necessary, which is something that ties me down. Beyond that…"
She gestured vaguely at the station around them.
"I'd also like to see this whole thing through. I'd like to know what Asami and I are capable of, and what exactly my wish has set me up for. I don't think it was just to save the Euphratic Campaign, as big a deal as that was. I have to think that, with all the coincidences and conspiracies going around, something else is going on."
"So you're happy staying here on this station?" Azrael asked.
"I didn't say that," Ryouko said, knowing that Azrael had meant the question rhetorically. "But it makes sense, for now. I just don't know what to do with what we find, or worse, if we find nothing. When is it time to complain? When is it time to ask to go somewhere else? What if Mami comes up with some other plan for me?"
She had gotten carried away in her sentence, but snapped back abruptly, blinking as she looked Azrael in the eyes. She didn't know if anything she had said was useful.
Instead of responding right away, Azrael was quiet, almost thoughtful, and when she spoke again, it was softly.
"Well, in the past I've found that when one is uncertain about where to go in life, it is worth thinking back to when you were happy, and what made you happy. Me, I realized that my happiest moments were when I was alone, soaring through the skies of some alien world, and that's driven a lot of my decision‐making since. I haven't figured out yet whether the alone part is important to that or not, but it at least gave me something to focus on."
Ryouko closed her eyes at that remark. She knew, in retrospect, when she had felt happiest, and the most engaged, even if she hadn't realized it at the time. She just wasn't sure if she should say it.
"You're going to say you were happier when going on missions, aren't you?" Asami said, in a voice so subtle that Ryouko didn't even immediately realize that she had said something relevant.
Ryouko looked back at Asami, their eyes making contact. The sensation she felt was less one of surprise at her girlfriend's insight, and more one of paradoxical relief. It was the kind of relief that came with knowing that a long pretense, hitherto maintained only awkwardly, was no longer necessary.
"Pretty much, yeah," she conceded. "I don't know; I've had a long time to think about it, and I still don't know exactly why it is, but something about the missions I've been on, the things I was doing, made me feel like I was achieving something. Here, I feel like I'm always in a holding pattern, waiting for something to arrive, and even with supposedly unlimited time, it feels wrong, somehow."
"I knew this day would come," Asami said, shaking her head sadly. "We both know I would be lying if I said I understood where you were coming from, but it's your choice."
"What day do you mean?" Ryouko asked. "I'm just stating what moments I thought I was happiest. I haven't committed to anything else."
"But if something like that is when you're happiest, is there really any doubt you'll go back eventually?" Azrael said, face carefully neutral. "After all, in our immortal lives, what purpose is there but satisfaction with what you're doing?"
"That's just it," Ryouko said, shaking her head as well. "Everyone always talks like eternity is guaranteed, but it isn't. The Cephalopods could be on the verge of wiping out everyone, but we all sit around like we're living in a dream, discussing what idle pursuit we want to engage in for the next few decades. How could I ever settle down like that, knowing what's out there? Knowing that I could help?"
She stopped abruptly, realizing she was holding her arm up in the air awkwardly, and dropped it a moment later, embarrassed.
"It's the only topic I've ever seen you really engaged by," Asami said, expression unreadable. "I know you feel empty of achievement most of the time, and the part of me that wants you to be happy conflicts with the part that wants you safe."
"Is that really what it is, though?" Azrael asked, folding her wings habitually. "Not everyone contributes by being in combat. The case is easily made—has been made—that you're more valuable doing this research than just being another combat teleporter. It's not as simple as that."
Ryouko closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the truth of those words. Yes, it was true, she felt more engaged by the war than by anything else, but she never felt herself motivated by anything so selfless as a desire to save humanity. When she thought back, she remembered the ecstasy of saving her team, the simple happiness of seeing Sacnite rescued, the pleading eyes of the teenage Goddess on her.
And she remembered violently killing the Ceph that had dared kill her teammate.
"No, that's not the only reason," she said. "But what can I say? That I don't really understand the other reasons? That I worry now the other reasons only exist because of the modifications someone made to me? How can I trust my own motivations anymore?"
"And I love flying, even though I know one of the colony's scientists built that into me," Azrael said. "The sensation of wind on my face, soaring on the powerful breath of a thermal…"
She let her voice trail off, before continuing.
"I would say that, whatever modifications were made to your personality, they are something you can only embrace. If someone is controlling or influencing you, then yes, you are right to be worried, but if you only enjoy combat, then that is a part of you, even if that was placed in you by an external actor. What are you supposed to do, change it back? That's what Governance did to my friends from my colony, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."
A long silence followed that statement, and then Ryouko said:
"So what am I supposed to do? Try to volunteer to go back into combat? Even if I could leave, I have others to think about."
She glanced at Asami quickly, who met the gaze for as long as it lasted. She had been vague, but it was clear who she had mainly meant.
"Maybe not combat, per se," Azrael said. "Maybe something a bit more restricted than that. You're hardly the first to have to face questions like this."
"The good news on that front, at least, is that you may not be here for too much longer," Director Volokhov said, hologram materializing just in front of the doorway to the room.
"Do you make a habit of spying on all your guests?" Azrael asked, with more than a trace of annoyance. "This was obviously a private conversation. That's a bit rude, don't you think?"
"I just got here," Volokhov said, "and this is a top‐secret, secure facility. I have sub‐sentient algorithms combing my sensors constantly for information I need to know. The rest is deleted immediately, I assure you. I wouldn't lie about that."
"Very trustworthy," Azrael said sarcastically.
"Anyway, there's been a development," Volokhov said briskly. "And I thought this was just a good moment to point it out. We have a visitor."
"You know, I didn't want to bring it up because it seemed disrespectful, but I made a big exception for you."
"I know, Kyouko," Mami said.
"It's weird hearing you call me that, but I guess…"
Kyouko's voice trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished.
If there was a phrase to summarize the current situation, it was "better than expected". Mami's initial message—simply "I remember"—had brought her to a level of horror she hadn't thought still possible at her age.
She and Yuma had convened and hurriedly game‐planned for all kinds of outré scenarios, in conversations that seemed downright panicked and delirious in retrospect. Mami was fine, for certain values of fine. Those certain values were usually good enough for the MHD, and they were good enough for Kyouko here.
"So why did you decide to tell me you made an exception if it would seem disrespectful?" Mami asked, looking at Kyouko out of the corner of her eye.
Kyouko let out a breath, glancing over their surroundings to delay having to respond. There wasn't much to see, really. They were in a small side annex of the main Ribbon Chamber, which had been closed down for "renovations"—the exception she had spoken of earlier. Entering via the auxiliary entrances attracted less attention, but there really wasn't anything to see other than dark wooden walls and a few muted portraits.
"To be honest, I'm just trying to talk to you," Kyouko said. "You've barely said anything meaningful since you got here, and here we are waiting for you to open the door, and all you're doing is just standing there. I don't want to disrespect how big a deal this must be for you, but if you're hurting, I want to talk to you. You never gave us the chance to, the first time."
Not until she said it out loud did she realize how much that had bothered her, as irrational a concern as it seemed, given that it was Mami's feelings, not hers, at stake.
Mami's shoulders slumped slightly, and it occurred to Kyouko that she recognized the expression, even if she had never seen it on Mami. It was a curious mixture of tired but determined, lonely but self‐assured, that usually bespoke someone doing their best to survive in the wake of loss. She remembered seeing its like most frequently after New Athens, and at various times during the Unification Wars. All too frequently Mami had been on the other side of that conversation, the warm heart of the MSY comforting the bereaved.
"I'll be alright," Mami said. "Back then I wasn't ready. I don't think one can ever really be ready, but at least I'm not self‐destructive and…"
She shook her head slightly, long hair ruffling on her shoulders, filling Kyouko with an indescribable sense of… oddness, that Mami would choose to abandon such an iconic hairstyle in public, even for something as understandable as mourning.
"Thank you for taking care of me all these years," Mami said. "It can't have been easy, walking on eggshells. I realize now that the rest of you were always watching, just in case."
"It's what friends are for, after all," Kyouko said, realizing how incredibly pithy she sounded. She meant it, though.
"I can't help but feel even more guilt now, about Homura," Mami said, looking at Kyouko and revealing a sad smile that shook her. "Funny, isn't it, that at a time like this, I can't help but remember about how we let her down?"
Kyouko looked up evocatively at the ceiling, one of those vaguely priestly gestures she had picked up over the years.
"No, not really," she said. "It makes perfect sense. I think anyone who has lost someone they were taking care of knows how that works."
They shared a moment of silence after that comment, a charged silence whose meaning they both understood.
"In my mind I always imagined you making fun of me if I ever came here, after all those years of talking down on it," Mami said. "That seems silly in retrospect."
"I would never do that," Kyouko said, trying, and failing, to make eye contact with the other girl. "Everyone who chooses to come here has their own path, and their own reasons. I wouldn't have very much faith in my deity if I disrespected those reasons, would I?"
She paused, weighing her next words much more carefully than a younger Kyouko would have ever bothered to.
"That being said, I'd be lying if I pretended I had no interest in what changed your mind so suddenly. I mean, I guess it's kind of obvious, but I don't see how remembering what… happened changes anything. Are you here to seek more meaning?"
"I'm here because I remembered the conversation I had with Homura just before the memory wipe," Mami said, almost curtly. "That should explain enough, I think."
"She told you something?" Kyouko asked incredulously, barely biting back the natural "What did she tell you?".
"Maybe later," Mami said. "To tell the truth, I did have a question I wanted to ask you."
Mami reached forward to the old‐fashioned door, pausing before turning the knob.
"Yes?" Kyouko asked.
"The seal on my memories didn't start to come apart naturally," she said. "I designed it myself, and it was getting old and worn out, but nonetheless, someone released it, and recently. There are only a few people who are supposed to know how to do that."
"It wasn't me," Kyouko denied automatically, feeling uncomfortable under Mami's gaze. "And I'm pretty sure it wasn't Yuma. You should have seen us panicking…"
Her voice trailed off, as she realized what the implications would be. There was only one other person who would know how to unlock the seal, and she was supposed to be missing, or dead.
"Are you sure?" she asked Mami, because she had to.
"Yes, absolutely," Mami said. "Are you sure Yuma didn't do it without you knowing?"
"Even if I thought she was lying, I have no idea why she would," Kyouko said.
Mami closed her eyes, shaking her head.
"It's a bit much to think about. Let's get this over with."
She turned the doorknob.
"I hope this Goddess actually shows herself."
To Mami, who had seen generations' worth of magical girl artwork designed to awe, inspire, or just demonstrate the wealth of the owner, the vast height of the hall, the ornate stained glass, and the imposing pedestal did little to impress her.
The one thing that did impress itself on her, however, was the color of the hair in the stained glass image of the Goddess behind the pedestal. It was… an odd choice, one that she couldn't help but be unnerved by. After all, she remembered the color of the light she had seen, in that moment when Akari had died.
Now that she was finally here, she felt the odd reluctance that often comes with forcing oneself to do something bold and unusual. No matter how correct the action may be, it was inevitable to feel a little trepidation.
There was more to it than that, if she was being really honest. She knew—could easily feel—that she was too close to the brink for comfort. There was a reason she hadn't spoken clearly to Kyouko or Yuma before coming here. A part of her was angry at them, at Homura, at everyone, and she was afraid of showing it. Far safer to stay alone with her thoughts.
Well, not entirely alone. She found herself oddly glad for the company of Machina, who nowadays was starting to feel like a real friend. It was far too easy to close oneself off from the rest of the world, and hide everything. But TacComps couldn't be hidden from, and in this case she had to admit it was probably for the best.
"You walk up to the pedestal and, uh, kneel in front of it," Kyouko said, sidling up to her, sotto voce. "Or not, I guess I'm not really sure if that's necessary."
"No, I just wanted to stand and think a little," Mami said. "Homura has had a ribbon on her head for centuries and I never noticed anything special about it."
To tell the truth, there should have been little to think about. She was already here—what else was there to decide?
So she told herself, anyway.
She made her way across the room, past the cavernous arches, onto the long plush carpet, and up towards the pedestal, stepping through the disarmed military‐grade forcefield that shimmered in front of it. She did not kneel, as Kyouko had suggested, because she felt that she had no reason to. She had no reason to be part of this cult.
Yet, an undermining voice in the back of her head thought.
Not knowing what else to do, she simply closed her eyes and clasped her hands. She felt like she looked silly, but she had certainly been to her fair share of weddings, religious events, and funerals in her life. She knew how to approximate the rituals.
"So reluctant to the very end," a voice said. "What happened to the Tomoe Mami I knew, who would yell at me about the Law of Cycles? Whatever happened to that? There was a time when Mami‐san had better intuition."
Mami turned around, very slowly, unsure whether to trust her ears. It couldn't be—
"The divine one apologizes for sending someone like me to greet you, but apparently she thought I was someone you needed to see. Not sure I agree with the decision myself, but I can't say I don't relish the opportunity to talk to you again, without the need for pretense."
The girl in white bowed at the waist, raising her arm with a flourish, and for a moment Mami's eyes refused to focus, refused to see the white coat, ash‐blonde hair, and ridiculous bucket‐shaped hat.
Almost before she knew it, Mami found herself across the room, one arm jamming a musket into Oriko's neck.
Breathing hard, she played back her actions mentally. She had grabbed the other girl in a cocoon of ribbons, flung her up into the air and slammed her back into the ground, taking care to make sure she hit the wall on the way down. The impact of the collisions had taken visible chunks of masonry out of the wall, and a pool of blood was already forming on the floor, but Mami had persisted, firing shot after shot into the other girl as she walked closer.
She had only stopped, she realized, because she had noticed that the blood was vanishing, misting away into crimson smoke, and that the damage to the walls was disappearing.
"You realize you're threatening a dead girl, right?" Oriko said, completely untroubled by the ordeal that she had just experienced, or the musket jammed into her carotid arteries. "Not much you can do to me, but if you make this too messy, the Goddess will deprive us of our powers. She does so love to make people get along."
Dramatically, Oriko raised one hand to make a show of yawning.
With an angry growl, Mami dragged Oriko back onto her feet, not yet releasing the ribbons, before tossing the girl away from her. The girl landed adroitly, her hands somehow free, using one hand to fix the angle of her hat and the other to summon a cosmetic mirror to check her hair.
Her demeanor seemed almost designed to make Mami's blood boil, but by then Mami had managed to gain more of a hold of herself. It went without saying that the situation was crazy—she was clearly having one of the visions that the Ribbon was supposed to provide, which meant of course that Kyouko and Homura were right. Even though she had come here in that expectation, seeing it verified was something else altogether.
She had, however, pictured a vastly different outcome. Maybe some kind of celestial throne, or opportunity to converse. Certainly not her old nemesis.
With an annoyed noise, Mami dispelled her ribbons. They clearly did not matter here.
"Are you done working out your anger issues, then?" Oriko asked, smirking. "I guess I can see why I was sent here. I'm sure this is cathartic for you."
"And no, I'm not the Goddess, weren't you paying attention?" Oriko said, leaning forward to look at her carefully. "Are you sure you're alright? I am Mikuni Oriko, your old obsession."
"What the hell is this about?" Mami demanded, unable to take any more. "I came here for answers, not to see the likes of you."
"And answers you'll receive," Oriko said, gesturing extravagantly with one hand. Her mirror vanished in a puff of smoke.
The other girl closed her eyes for a moment, seeming to take a deep breath. In that moment, Mami felt an unsettling feeling burrow its way into her chest. The haughty sneer that seemed to be perpetually stapled to Oriko's face had abruptly vanished, making her realize that she had never actually seen Oriko's face without it.
Something was different about this Oriko… besides the fact that she was dead. It boggled Mami a little, to have firsthand verification of some kind of afterlife, if indeed this was proof, and not just an illusion, or a figment of Mami's own memories. After her previous experience with reversing her Reformatting, many things seemed possible.
It was this thought that allowed Mami to calm down, just a little, even as she kept a musket raised and pointed at the other girl.
Oriko took another breath, then took off her hat, bowing her head and shoulders towards Mami.
"Before we get to that, though," she said, methodological with obvious practice, "I'd like to take this opportunity to make things right between us. I was the worst kind of magical girl, a zealot who thought I had all the answers, a mastermind who tried to make everyone my puppets, when I was a puppet myself. But I was young, and so were you, and in retrospect I was jealous of you, even as I admired you for what you would become. You were far more suited to save this world, the hero we all needed. I was just a little girl playing with toys."
Mami blinked, and wasn't sure if she was more perplexed or horrified. What was this?
The other girl turned away at her reaction, turning her hat over in her hands.
"So, I apologize, and I won't say it was because I was only doing what I thought right. It started as an act, but by the end I grew to enjoy it, just a little. I've seen the other outcomes, the possibilities where I grew to enjoy it too much. I'm glad this isn't one of them."
"You apologize?" Mami asked, and what she had expected to be an angry snarl came out as only a muted dismay. "You think an apology is going to be enough, after all you've done?"
Even as she vocalized what she'd always wanted to say, part of her was turning over Oriko's words in her head. Oriko had… admired her? While trying to manipulate her? What was that supposed to imply?
"Of course not," Oriko said. "But there is nothing else I can do at this point. I'm a bit incapacitated."
There was a brief pause, during which Mami stood there watching Oriko's back, trying to evaluate what was going on even as a part of her fantasized about continuing her previous attack.
"The Goddess told me I've served an important purpose in your life, as the guiding compass of what kind of magical girl not to be. In a way, you're not that different from how Miki Sayaka was, wanting to be the embodiment of everything a magical girl should be. You're just much, much better at it. She's proud of you, you know."
"You killed her," Mami growled, feeling bile rise in her throat anew. "How dare you? You set up that demon attack!"
"She would have died anyway," Oriko said firmly, "but that's not an excuse, not morally. Really, though, only the dead have the luxury of deciding everything morally, because none of us can do anything. Well, most of us."
Oriko tilted her head, so that she was watching Mami with one eye, even as Mami's hand shook on her gun.
"You don't think I regret it? Of everything I could have done in my short time on the material plane, I chose to live my life like that? In the end that is the only true punishment for the sins you commit—that you have eternity to think about it."
Oriko turned away again.
"But enough about me. This isn't my show. You came here, to this astral plane you weren't even sure existed, to demand answers. Answers to what questions? Surely you've thought about it."
"I want to know the meaning of all this," Mami said, painfully aware that she would rather not bare her heart to the likes of Oriko. "What was the meaning of what happened to Akari? What was she turning into? What happened to her?"
She realized abruptly that she was shouting, and felt embarrassed, but only slightly, and only because it was Oriko. Certain things in life were worth shouting about.
"You're worried because you saw her turning into a monster," Oriko said. "And you're worried about what that means for her, and what that means for all of us."
Oriko's words echoed weirdly in the empty hall, as if her voice had subharmonics that should not have been possible, and the girl did not turn to face her.
"I can provide some reassurance on that front," she continued, carefully and quietly. "It is no longer possible for a magical girl to reach that stage. The Goddess herself prevents this at the last moment, granting merciful death instead. The final stage whose existence you suspected is an abomination, the decay of the universe delayed by the decay of the soul instead. It is as powerful as you always suspected, but it comes at a terrible price, one we will thankfully never pay."
Mami took in the words, shaking her head unhappily. There was a lot to think about, a lot to potentially ask about, but one question stood at the forefront of her mind.
"If all of that is true, and we are killed at the end of our lives, is that the end, then?" she asked. "And if so, how am I speaking to you? Are you just an apparition in my mind, placed there by this Goddess?"
Oriko turned slowly back around, her face thoughtful and gentle, an expression Mami would have had difficulty imagining on her previously.
"I'm not surprised you chose to ask that next," Oriko said. "Even if that's not the real question you're trying to ask. I'm not just an apparition, no. If it had been up to me, I would have sent Akari to greet you, to answer that question more directly, but the Goddess sees fit to send me instead. She has her reasons, but I doubt they'll make you feel any better."
There was a moment of silence that followed, and Mami's turbulent thoughts struggled to keep up with the situation in front of her. A sudden frustration at this so‐called Goddess conflicted with a clear sense that Oriko was concealing something, and she didn't know what to probe first. She also had a sense that this version of Oriko, with the odd resonating voice, had been sent to dispense information. If so… it probably wasn't a good idea to argue with her, even if she wanted to.
"You asked another question earlier," Oriko said, before Mami could ask anything further. "Though like the one before you didn't say what you really meant. It's a question that's been gnawing at you all these years, whether you realized it or not."
"And what is this supposed question?" Mami asked, allowing Oriko to pull her along with this conversation. Her musket lowered another inch.
"You asked to know the meaning of all this," Oriko said. "All that's happened to you in your long life. The sacrifices, the deaths—and yes, that includes Akari, and what you did to your own memory. Again and again you've been asked to sacrifice: your morals, your feelings, your friends, your freedom, and you can't help but wonder now what it's all worth. Every supposed triumph is incomplete. The MSY couldn't save your first apprentices, or Akari. Wiping your own memory to complete the expansion negotiations didn't prevent millions from dying anyway. Over and over the world you're trying to save enters conflagration anew, and you find yourself right there in the front of it, giving up pieces of yourself to pour water on the flame."
"So what if that's true?" Mami asked, making it a challenge. "There's nothing anyone can do about that. That's just what I have to do. The work is what matters. Too many people are counting on me."
"Do you really think that's stable, in the long‐term?" Oriko asked. "In your heart you're still waiting for it all to end, but is it ever going to really end? And if it ever really does, what are you going to do? Sit at home making cakes and stewing on the past? Could you ever be happy that way?"
"Not anymore," Mami said, the words dropping unbidden from her lips, as if bewitched. "I would have to find Homura again, at the very least. And even then, when I sat down at my table, the ghosts of the lost would fill the empty spots."
She covered her mouth with both hands in shock, her gun disappearing entirely. She hadn't voluntarily said that.
"My time here is at an end, it seems," Oriko said, ducking her head. "I was misinformed. The Goddess is capricious. How cruel—this was supposed to be my show."
"Wait!" Mami demanded, even as Oriko's form started to fade. "I'm not done with you!"
"Do you remember what you told me once, Mami‐san?" a familiar, very young voice said.
Mami turned, and in the sweep of her turn, the world shifted, and they were no longer in a church, but in a very familiar apartment—one she hadn't seen in centuries.
"You said that I would have to fight for all eternity," the voice said. "An endless battle, from the far past to the distant future."
Mami squinted her eyes, unable to see the figure seated at the table in front of her. No, it wasn't the light—but nonetheless she couldn't shake the feeling that something very bright was blinding her, and that was why she couldn't see.
"I said that? To you?" Mami asked, stuck asking the only possible question.
"Sit," the girl said, gesturing with one hand. It was the polite kind of order.
Mami sat, still doing her level best to see the other girl's face. It didn't take a master detective to deduce the obvious here: that this girl, whose voice and form was almost painfully familiar, was someone Mami had once known, even if it was only, as Homura had suggested, in another world.
Another world, Mami repeated to herself. It was startling how prosaic these notions were starting to seem, given all that she had seen so far.
"I can't have you seeing my face, Mami‐san, I'm sorry," the girl said.
There was a moment of silence.
"The words I quoted were your words to me, in those brief moments before I took on my position here. You warned me about the need to fight until the end of time, and I thought I was ready, but I wasn't. No one truly is."
The hands in front of her moved to pick up some strawberry cream cake from the table, cake that Mami had somehow failed to notice thus far. Hesitantly, Mami picked up a fork.
"But in the end, it didn't matter that I wasn't ready," the girl said, slicing delicately into the cake. "I did the job anyway. I had to."
"I obviously don't remember what you're talking about," Mami said, tentatively taking a slice of cake for herself. "But I'm sure you know that, so the real question is, what are you trying to tell me?"
As Mami waited for the answer to that question, she took a bite of the cake. Instantly, she felt herself overcome with a sense of the deepest nostalgia, as the combination of moist cream, tangy strawberry, and just dry enough cake filled her mouth.
It took a moment for her to remember again why she was there, and another moment for her to understand just why it had had that effect on her.
It was her cake, after all, cake she had spent long hours practicing, mastering, and even developing her own approach to, all those years ago when she had possessed the time to fritter away on things like that.
Why then, was she crying?
"You're tired of all this," the girl said. "In your heart you know this. I won't rehash what Oriko said. The problem is, you can't really go back either. The version of you that exists now can't really go back to making cakes or having tea parties, not while there's a world to save. But is the world ever going to stop needing saving? Or will there always be something new to do? Two centuries of peace and prosperity, and you couldn't step away."
"I tried," Mami said. "I tried, but only Kyouko would go with me, and then this war arrived…"
"You couldn't talk Kyouko into taking a vacation with you for two centuries?" the childish voice demanded. "I find that difficult to believe."
Mami didn't deny the truth of those words, focusing for a moment on the vastly easier task of just finishing her cake.
"I'm sorry, Mami," the voice said, with real contrition that tugged at her to hear. "I'm being too harsh. In the end you realized you were doing something wrong, and talked to Kyouko anyway. The war arrived at the worst possible time, because it stopped you from doing something you desperately needed to do."
The girl picked up a teapot, again one that had appeared seemingly from the ether, and used it to pour them both a cup.
"You weren't entirely right about fighting for all eternity," the girl said. "The work is difficult, and I am often tired, but it turns out there's plenty of time for breaks in eternity, if you just know where to look. No one with any trace of humanity is capable of never stepping away."
"What would you have me do, then?" Mami asked, sipping the tea while making gestures at the table with one hand. "You know how important it is that I keep my position. My departure would cause a big loss in prestige both for the organization and me personally. That would hurt everyone."
"I'm not telling you to leave your position, Mami‐san," the apparition said. "But you need to learn to let go, and let someone else take care of things for a while. You can take a proper leave of absence, can't you? Say you're in mourning for a loved one. It's true enough. The front is quiet, and the Admiral you've left in charge seems like she's doing a fine job in your absence."
Mami closed her eyes, probing the core of her soul. What did she want to say to that? What were her true feelings on the matter? To others, she had gotten used to keeping up a front of reliable, motherly cheerfulness. To herself, she had learned to maintain a constant undertone of quiet sadness, nostalgia, almost wistfulness, a sort of meaningless low‐grade emotion that served to keep her from feeling anything more extreme. The only thing that had pierced that in recent memory was uncovering her memories about Akari.
She felt the name roll through her mind, and remembered, again, what it had been like to feel her end. How unjust the world had seemed, how empty all her sacrifices had felt.
And how unworthy she felt, knowing that Akari had made the ultimate sacrifice for her, only for her to squander it in self‐loathing and murder. There was no real satisfaction in blowing a hole through a girl's chest, shredding the soul gem in passing. Only a sense of bitterness, at the world, at herself for training Akari to be so self‐sacrificing, at a system that could ever produce the monstrosity she had seen Akari becoming.
"I could use the break," she said, finally. "Take some time to get a grasp on myself. I just can't… can't rid myself of the worry that something will happen, with me gone."
"I feel sorry for you," the other girl said, pouring more tea. "It is a burden, to care so much about others, in a world which certainly doesn't care about them at all. I certainly know all about that. Far easier to only care about one, but if you only cared about one, Akiyama‐san would be here right now."
Mami felt the other girl's eyes on her, though she couldn't technically even see those eyes and, discomfited, drank the new cup of tea.
"Good," the girl said. "There's less time than I prefer, but events here are moving fast, and it's at least plenty of time to get the ball rolling on an overdue introduction, or perhaps I should say re‐introduction."
"Don't tell me it's Oriko again," Mami said impulsively, regretting the comment even as she spoke it. "I, uh, think I've had enough of Oriko."
The girl laughed a little, an achingly human gesture that made Mami feel for just a moment as if she could remember who this was.
"No, not Oriko‐chan. Machina‐chan has been quiet for far too long, despite being perfectly aware of what's going on. Why don't you say something?"
Mami squinted her eyes as she felt a sense of surprise appear in her mind, from an entity she abruptly realized had been there the whole time.
A girl stepped from behind the Goddess's back, as smoothly as if she had always been there, appearing from what felt like a gap in Mami's perception. The girl had long, straight hair, the same color as Mami's own, and wore what appeared to be a dress uniform, complete with properly‐fitted beret.
The girl blinked against the light, and only then did Mami realize that one of her irises was missing, replaced with the unnerving design AIs preferred on their avatars.
"What?" the girl asked, and Mami recognized the voice immediately, because it was her own.
"Machina?" she asked, as confused as the standing girl seemed to be.
"I took the liberty of extracting you into an avatar," the entity seated across from Mami explained. "It's the same one you sometimes use online. Don't be embarrassed."
The last sentence came as the girl's eyes widened in panic and she looked frantically around for somewhere to hide, settling for ducking ineffectually behind the Goddess, before realizing how ridiculous she looked.
"Yes, it's, uh, me," Machina said, standing back up and managing to snap to attention.
"But how…" Mami began, pressing a hand to her head, wondering what she was seeing. Machina was her personal assistant, but…
The pieces fell into place a moment later, the only possible conclusion, given the evidence and the fact that no less than a supposed goddess of magical girls was making a scene of this introduction.
"Are you sentient?" Mami blurted out, for once her mouth running ahead of her head. "Is that what this is?"
Once asked, the question couldn't be taken back, even if Mami bit her lip a moment.
"Yes," the girl said, looking to the side awkwardly. "I realized shortly after the upgrade to Version Two. I… didn't know how to tell you. So I didn't, not with all that was going on."
Mami let her thought end there, closing her eyes. This was too much. She needed more time to handle all of this. This goddess was right, damn her, even if she was the cause of many of these problems.
No, that wasn't reasonable. She was only the messenger.
"You do need the rest," the entity in question said, not even pretending not to read her mind. "I'll promise you one thing, as long as you don't tell anyone about it. There won't be any Cephalopod activity for a few weeks, so you can take your break fully relaxed. Come back here when you're done. I'll be waiting."
The light from the girl's face grew intense, blinding, until Mami could only close her eyes and shield herself.
And then she found herself blinking in front of a pedestal, back in the church.
"Well, what did you see?" Kyouko asked, waiting only a couple of seconds.
"Everything," Mami said wearily.