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 many others in the organization, I discovered quite early the frustrating limits of my powers. It sounds grand, doesn't it? The ability to cast my mind's eye anywhere in the past, spying on the affairs of friend and foe alike. An appropriate power, for a girl who wished to know the truth of an event in the past. As I practiced my magic, came to lead my own team, and meditated on the nature of things, I came to realize just how incredibly useful a power like that could be. My own particular magic mirror might be a little idiosyncratic, prone to showing me only what it wanted on seemingly random whims, but it was surely nothing I couldn't bring under control, with just a little practice. Just a little effort."〉④

〈"And here I am, half a century older, with absolutely nothing to show for it. In retrospect, given the zero success rate of my peers, it is perhaps not that surprising. There was a saying, wasn't there? That whoever controls the past controls the future? These kinds of powers, which can be manipulated into unlimited control over the threads of fate, would upend our society, our future, and probably cannot be allowed to exist. The hidden workings of fate, of whatever it is that makes our wishes tick, cannot be exposed. It is only natural."〉④

〈"So it is that like all of us, I busy myself studying those few threads we are allowed to see, and even reach forward to pluck a string, every once in a while. And like all of us, sometimes I wonder if all these strings lead somewhere, somehow, to a master puppeteer."〉④

— Kuroi Kana, excerpt from a deposition given to the Far Seers.

In light of the unprecedented emergency before us, and before the United Front, it has become clear that this current conflict is no mere war, but rather nothing less than a struggle for the future of the human race, for civilization itself. In this, we must not, we cannot fail. In this, we must be willing to pay almost any cost. Anything but our very humanity.

In the light of our extreme exigencies, and in the face of our limited resources, there is often simply no time for inefficient legal formalities.

Resolved, then:

Officers of the military of this United Front above the grade of Captain are authorized to perform whatever techniques necessary to obtain information of importance to combat or intelligence operations. Officers are reminded to use only methods with proven effectiveness and accuracy.

Officers of the military of this United Front above the grade of Captain are authorized to perform summary execution of individuals whenever exceptional criminal behavior has been convincingly demonstrated. Officers are reminded to extract all useful intelligence first.

— Emergency Defense Council Public Decree, 2191, excerpt.

"Truth be told, I'm not happy to be surprised like this," Vlad said as he accompanied them to the airlock. "But Director Valentin has real political pull, and little regard for the expectations of others. Still, she gets things done, there's no doubt about that. That matters more than anything."

It was certainly obvious that something was bothering Vlad, Ryouko thought. Besides the fact that he was being unusually talkative, he was also… not exactly walking with them, having decided instead to hover just above the ground and follow behind, like some sort of eerie ghost from a war movie.

The rare human personnel of the facility looked up as they passed by, at the odd agglomeration of Vlad, Ryouko, Asami, Patricia, her two bodyguards, and Azrael, who strictly speaking had no reason to be there. No one objected to her presence, however, even as Azrael conceded privately to Ryouko that she was following only to gawk.

"Anyway, it's not as if she has any real reason to be here, other than to make sure I behave," Vlad said. "She's bringing Director Tao. Apparently he has made some kind of new breakthrough, and she thought it would be lovely to tell him about all we're doing here, and even bring him over. I suppose I'm going to have to be friendly."

His voice dripped with the sort of… professional annoyance that Ryouko recognized from those rare occasions her parents had discussed their academic rivals. The way her mother had explained it to her, now that science was so transparent, with new breakthroughs constantly broadcast to the world, Governance felt free to encourage a little healthy rivalry between similar research groups, to spur innovation. After all, they would be free to inspect each others' results either way. With the exception of classified work.

Vlad landed back on the ground as they gathered near the airlock, the mechanisms of the entryway already in action. It occurred to her that the Director looked nervous, somehow.

The door unsealed itself a moment later with a barely audible hiss, then slid aside abruptly, revealing the expected forms of Joanne Valentin, Director of Prometheus Institute, and Tao Shaojie, Director of Very High Energy Studies at the Institute for Theoretical Gravitonics.

They may as well call themselves a Board of Directors, Azrael wisecracked.

"Vlad!" Valentin said enthusiastically, bounding up to the AI's avatar, and it was obvious she would have hugged him, had there been anything to hug.

"Hello, Joanne," Vlad said, looking almost sheepish.

Are they dating or something? Asami asked, casting a glance at Ryouko.

"I suppose I should explain that Director Valentin was my original, uh, designer and partial personality template," Vlad said, glancing at Tao, who was raising an eyebrow. "That's not common knowledge, so I'd appreciate it not be spread around."

"Oh, I don't know why you're always so embarrassed about it," Valentin said, making a dismissive gesture with one hand.

"Juicy gossip for the conference circuit," Director Tao said, clearing his throat and raising an eyebrow. "But, I won't say anything."

"And the girl of the hour," Valentin said, stepping over to shake Ryouko's hand. Her chirpy demeanor faded, in a way that seemed well‐practiced.

"Well there's certainly much to talk about," she said. "Vlad, is there somewhere we can speak privately?"

"Of course," Vlad said, a tad unsteadily. "Right this way."

"I suppose there are those here on this station that don't know about Clarisse?" Valentin transmitted as they began to walk. "A shame, I would have liked to speak to her in avatar form. Well, perhaps later."

Rather than head to a private room or one of the lab facilities Ryouko was used to, this time Vlad steered them into a mundane‐looking meeting room, with a simple white table and set of chairs. Tea sets and cookies were laid out on the table, but only for five.

"I'm afraid we're going to be discussing some rather confidential material," Vlad said apologetically, stopping Azrael, Elanis, and Eri at the door. "I'm going to have to ask that anyone without special clearance leave the room."

The girls in question nodded and stepped back out of the room. Patricia started to follow them, before seeming to freeze mid‐gait. A moment later, she turned around stiffly and headed for the table. Neither Vlad nor Valentin reacted, and Ryouko realized that they must have intended for Patricia to be there.

"We can sit here and talk without being overheard," Vlad said, as everyone else found their seats. "Well, except by my microphones, but that obviously doesn't matter."

He smiled to indicate that the last sentence had been intended as a mild joke, then materialized a holographic chair and sat in it.

A moment of silence passed as the remaining parties—Vlad, Valentin, Tao, Patricia, Ryouko, and Asami—assessed the table.

"As you have been informed, Director Volokhov," Tao said, without preamble, "I have been given the privilege of looking through the data and results of your experiments here. I must say it is an audacious concept, directing the focus of your efforts on something so immediately practical. Everyone has their own ideas for something so useful as a controlled singularity and temporary wormhole generator, of course."

The last sentence carried just a hint of acrimony, the careful note of a man displeased with having his research subjects taken away from him. Ryouko wondered if she was supposed to feel somewhat off‐put, even if Tao had smiled to indicate an attempt at mirth.

"It wasn't entirely my idea, I must admit," Vlad said. "I catered my goals to the needs of the hour, as they were relayed to me."

"Indeed," Tao said. "Nonetheless, I am not here to pick at academic rivalries. I believe there is something of value to be found in more basic research. For example, we see here—"

He casually brought up a set of equations on the table surface, along with a floating shape that Ryouko recognized as some kind of gravimetric representation of the chamber Asami practiced in.

"It's clear from your notes that you've been experiencing significant issues with instability after initial shape construction, perhaps some kind of resonance effect."

"Or maybe a cascade," Vlad said, gesturing down at a symbol on the table. "We've seen hints of something like that, but the primary frequency seems to be inconsistent, so we can't isolate numerically what it's likely to be. The models also don't suggest a likely source for the effect, but I'm hesitant to blame the controller without further evidence."

The controller being Asami in this case, of course.

"Well, that is where I think my previous data can definitely help you," Tao said. "Especially the experiments with wormhole teleportation under high gravity."

He cast a small glance at Ryouko, who nodded slightly in acknowledgment. To tell the truth, she had always envied Tao. Not for the intellect or the accomplishments, but for the fact that under the layers of practiced academic aloofness, even chilliness, there was a radiant inner core of passion, of dedication to his chosen craft, that Ryouko could not understand or emulate.

She decided, as she always had, that she was alright with being looked upon as a research subject. Besides, he couldn't be that bad—she had met his kids, little "bundles of joy" who couldn't wait to ride on the back of the magical girl who had been all over the news.

"We have always wondered why it is that the aliens so strongly favor using their blink technologies in deep space," Tao said, gearing up for a lecture. "Their wormhole stabilizers, the few we've managed to observe and have sensor readings of, appear to function perfectly fine in the gravity wells of large planets, but there is substantial evidence that they can operate their paradox drives only as close as the outer reaches of a star system, and even their blink cannons are reluctant to enter planetary orbit. This flies in the face of what we know about wormholes, and our practical experience with IIC zero‐width technology."

"The conventional experience is that the stronger the local gravity, the easier a wormhole should be to make," Ryouko said, catching Tao's eye. "That was one of the reasons why I was able to teleport so much better after we blew up the stabilizer. After all, the higher the gravity, the more strain space‐time is under."

She was relying on ancient classroom instruction and what she had picked up from her time in both labs. They hadn't been entirely left out of the loop, after all.

"Yes," Tao said, "but contrary to what you might expect, our studies of your teleportation strongly suggest that the higher the gravity we apply, the longer it takes and the more energy you expend."

Ryouko frowned, furrowing her brow.

"That's the first I've heard of this. I thought the variations were just an effect of teleporting too much?" she asked. "There's a limit to how much I can do it."

Tao shook his head.

"That was what we thought at first, but a more detailed analysis of the data shows that's not the only effect. It's quite subtle, and I wonder if it's just that we don't have strong enough gravity generators to produce a significant effect."

"I'm sorry to seem impatient…" Vlad began.

"Ah yes, of course," Tao said, briefly chagrined.

"In any case, this kind of effect makes little sense with our current knowledge," he said, "so we began exploring extensions to the theories, something that could both mathematically explain the observed oscillations as well as the qualitative impressions of Miss Shizuki here. It took a bit of doing, but we believe we have a working hypothesis, which I think will help you stabilize this incipient wormhole you're working on."

"What is this hypothesis, exactly?"

"We know that the key to wormhole‐making is successfully tearing off a piece of space‐time, but up until now it has eluded you—eluded us—how to do this in a stable fashion, without applying a ruinous amount of energy. We think the key to this is to avoid paying most of this energy cost ourselves. There is a natural process Miss Shizuki exploits to pay this cost—if you can contrive to take that piece of space‐time, and find a singularity somewhere to dump it into, the Second Law will take care of the rest. The power curve on this is parabolic to the first order, so that the most efficient attempts require either very flat, low‐entropy space‐time, or an already very curved space‐time—"

"Excuse me, gentlemen, while this is fascinating material, I think you're confusing the rest of the table," Valentin interjected. "I had not expected you all to go into quite so much detail. Perhaps you can discuss this elsewhere and rejoin us later? Vladimir is fully capable of conducting two conversations at once. We have other things to talk about."

"Oh, certainly," Director Tao said, looking carefully at Ryouko, who had been politely listening, but had honestly been unable to keep up—the words all made sense to her, and she could easily get the point of using one process to power another, but to talk about this in relation to space‐time and wormholes… it was obvious that the natural language for this kind of topic was mathematics, not words. And where exactly was one supposed to find a singularity without magic?

"I'm not sure I have the processing capacity for both these things at once," Vlad said, holding his chin thoughtfully. "But I can try."

They nodded politely in the direction of the table before walking out together, Vlad saying something about direct neural interfaces.

The AI's avatar reappeared a moment later in the same chair, as if he had never left at all.

"I don't know how you humans stand it, only being in one place at a time," he said, shrugging and smiling vaguely.

"We had other things to talk about?" Ryouko probed, unsure if Valentin's earlier offhand comment had been meant seriously, or only as a conversational gambit.

"Yes," Valentin said, looking meaningfully at Vlad, who only nodded slightly.

"Would it be possible to have Clarisse join us in avatar form for this?" she asked. "I know she can hear everything, but she can't speak, and this is a human‐dominated conversation, so…"

Clarisse appeared a moment later where Tao had been sitting earlier.

"What is this about?" she asked.

Valentin looked around, assessing her audience, before saying:

"I think it's time you all learned a little bit more about just what exactly is going on with Clarisse and the other Version Two Tactical Computers, especially now that, with the upcoming movie, you two will be the public face of these devices for quite a while."

Ryouko saw Clarisse narrow her eyes, and instinctively imitated the gesture.

"What exactly do you mean?" Clarisse asked. "I have a feeling you don't just mean telling us about design specs or marketing details."

"No, I don't," Valentin said decisively.

There was a moment of silence, in which Ryouko probed internally for Clarisse's feelings, trying to see what she was thinking. Patricia, for her part, looked… not merely thoughtful, but quietly expectant, as if she was about to get some questions answered. Ryouko wondered what Patricia knew that she didn't.

"You have heard of the Trusted Computing Framework, I assume?" Valentin asked finally. "It is a required topic in middle school civics, after all, though I know not every student remembers everything."

"I've heard of it," Ryouko said, unsure who was being asked. The question was rather patronizing, she felt—but Valentin couldn't possibly have meant Clarisse, who could be presumed to know about something as core to her existence as the TCF.

"It's a rather nice idea, isn't it?" Vlad said. "My namesake was a real genius. As long as you could build the initial few AIs correctly and could verify your math, the rest would take care of itself by bootstrap. Provable security, as long as you didn't let your hardware get too frail or accumulate too many errors, something we can take care of ourselves."

"The chain is secured by something akin to mathematical induction," Valentin said. "But has it ever occurred to you that there is in fact one force we know of capable of breaching what cannot be breached? I am referring of course to magic."

She laid the sentences out in a concise style, not even giving Ryouko and the others time to think about her rhetorical question. Instead, it was the answer that caused Ryouko to blink and mentally stumble. The usual serene explanation of the TCF, as familiar as the back of her hand, was interrupted by a chain of logic that seemed so… evident.

"I've never thought of that," Asami said, echoing Ryouko's thoughts.

"I have," Patricia said, tersely. "I do it to the squid all the time in combat, of course. I'd wondered about it, to be honest."

"I have, too," Clarisse said, shaking her head slightly. "But I didn't really know what to think about it. I could only assume someone was working on countermeasures. I've also never really been sure of my place in the TCF. The other AIs I've talked to all insist I must have some kind of design record with me that proves I fit in, but I don't. I've always assumed it was something to do with the secrets of the project, and the organic parts that compose me."

"Someone was working on countermeasures," Vlad said, angling his head towards Valentin. "There's an old concept in security, called security through diversity, that is relevant pretty much everywhere you look. After all, there is no rule that forces us to have only one TCF. You can have as many as you want, and they can even all be functionally interchangeable, as long as you're willing to put in the work to rebuild and reverify everything from scratch, without relying on any AI."

"This is all assuming anyone even wants to break into the TCF," Asami said. "I know it must be a delicate topic, especially with, you know, Chitose Yuma and all, but there must be some kind of deal that must be made, if magic is the only threat."

"Well, if you'll pardon me saying so, your MSY isn't exactly the most unified and cohesive of organizations, at least not compared to the likes of Governance," Vlad said. "More to the point, ever since it was realized that this was a real possibility, Governance has monitored the situation a bit more closely than it has in the past, and there have been glitches, despite the existence of exactly the kind of agreement you've suggested. Moreover, these glitches have become more common in recent years, despite the insistence of your leadership that it has no idea what is going on."

"You're talking about the drone attack on Kyouko," Ryouko said, with sudden insight. "That wasn't just a one‐time thing?"

"I'm afraid not," Vlad said. "Though admittedly it is the most severe incident on record. There are certain people in both Governance and the MSY who are growing very concerned."

Patricia made a noise of agreement.

"Which is where you come in, naturally," she extrapolated, turning her gaze at Valentin.

"Naturally," Valentin echoed. "Among our other duties, the Prometheus Institute has been responsible, on a purely top secret level, for two instances of reforging a Trusted Computing Framework. The first was rather traditional, spawning a new generation of AIs which have been quietly distributed into key locations throughout human space, where they might be able to respond to a crisis. Vlad is the fourth such AI."

"I knew there was something weird about you," Patricia said, shaking her head almost in annoyance. "Something just felt off, even if I could never put my finger on it."

"Yes, I wasn't… exactly fond of having a magic specialist like you come on board," Vlad said, tactfully. "But my directives were very insistent on the matter."

"A second line of AIs would be—will be a huge political controversy," Ryouko said, leaning forward with a look of frank, deliberate incredulity. "Our society is built on the TCF. Our unity depends on it. Isn't that what they always tell us?"

"Yes, but we have to adapt to necessity," Valentin said, giving her a warm look. "And this is necessary. As I have said, this new TCF is no less secure than the previous version. This is a plan with the full approval of the relevant parties."

"You're trying to tell us that I'm from one of the newer lines of AIs," Clarisse said. "That's the only way this conversation would make sense."

Ryouko felt within her the stirrings of understanding, and of anger.

"Yes," Valentin said simply, closing her eyes for a moment. "To be clear, the sentience really was an accident, just as we have always said. It was a challenge working with an organic interface and using clonal DNA that we couldn't modify, but we're one of the top laboratories in the world at that kind of thing, after all. We got the job done. It was only supposed to be a much more powerful semi‐sentient. Something happened that we don't fully understand, some kind of interaction with the magical girl candidates, perhaps, but it somehow happens even in some of the normal humans."

Her voice was carefully, painfully neutral, but then she turned and looked directly at Ryouko.

"Before you think to ask, no, neither of your parents had any idea this was going on. They weren't on this project."

"Why would you even allow something like this to be put inside other peoples' minds," Clarisse asked, voice strained. "I'm not saying I'm unhappy, but it's a clear ethical violation."

"Do you know how far the TCF extends in our society?" Valentin said, levelly. "I'm sorry, of course you do. Governance plans for the worst case, and in this case the worst case would be unknown parties managing to modify human implants without the knowledge of any proper authority. We started auditing everything, of course, using some of the newer lines of AI, but there's so much to go through, and no guarantee someone might not come back and re‐infiltrate the system later. It is all the security nightmares of the distant past, come back to fruition."

Valentin managed an odd combination of passionate but not too passionate, a conversational deftness that gave Ryouko a bit of an odd feeling, since it struck her as something she had only seen among Ancients. Was Valentin that old? No—she was human.

"Anyway," Valentin said, leaning back in her chair. "The application of secure diversity in this case was to distribute secondary systems into the most important individuals, a backup capable of noticing and, if necessary, overriding any problems with the main systems. The TacComp Version Twos were meant to be this backup system, a new system designed purely from scratch that would serve this supervisory role. It's not a coincidence that they were distributed to the senior officer corps first. Eventually, the idea was to perhaps even roll it out to all of humanity, if the circumstances warranted that level of additional implantation. Now that these new anomalies have been discovered, those plans are on hold."

"I don't know how to feel about this," Clarisse said, shaking her head and looking down at the table they were sitting at. "On the one hand, I am what I am, but on the other hand…"

Ryouko knew then that she had been thoughtless, in a way, agonizing over her place in the world and what she should do with her life. She had worried over what it meant to have part of her designed by an unknown party, when Clarisse had faced these same questions and more in silence. There were mitigating factors, but if she thought of Clarisse as human, then she had to accept that Clarisse would have all of the same problems, even with a supposedly assigned role in life.

And, as they were discovering at that very moment, sometimes even knowing who your designer was didn't really help.

To Ryouko's surprise, Valentin's face looked concerned, even sorrowful.

"I do not have an answer to that kind of question, unfortunately," she said. "I can only offer my apology that this happened and that you must face such questions. That is, in fact, one of the reasons I came here. I had heard from others about your situation and how you felt about it, and I wanted to offer some truth, at least, and my apology."

There was a moment of silence as the table watched Clarisse, who only sat shaking her head slowly, obviously unhappy, if that was even a sufficient adjective to describe her emotion.

"That's not the only reason," Clarisse said finally, looking up with eyes that Ryouko could not read—if, indeed, Clarisse even intended her avatar to allow others to read it. "If that were it, you would have explained long ago, or Vlad would have explained it to me. This is a secret, and somehow you feel emboldened now to talk about it. Something has changed."

Ryouko and Asami glanced at each other, surprised by Clarisse's response, and then looked at Patricia for guidance, but Valentin only nodded.

"Yes, events are moving quickly, and Governance is growing worried. It always knew it would be impossible to keep these revelations a secret forever, particularly with those such as Patricia digging around so close to installed individuals."

Here, she nodded broadly in Patricia's direction, before continuing.

"If that is the case, it is always preferable to release the truth on its own terms, rather than have them be dictated by fate, or unknown parties. The timetable on that has been greatly accelerated."

"What exact plans are involved?" Ryouko asked. "I get the sense something big is in motion, and you're not sharing the details."

Valentin pressed her fingers together, as if considering the notion.

"Well, on this particular topic, there's not really that much to share. Governance is working its way through the intermediate stages of a public release plan for this information, parallel to a plan for much wider distribution of new TCF AIs if the public response is relatively positive."

"But?" Clarisse pressed, as Valentin was leaving the obvious implication that her statement was incomplete.

"I'm not at liberty to say, and really shouldn't even be alluding to it, but I will say that we are hopeful for the results of the experiments being conducted here in this lab. It has much potential."

Ryouko swallowed carefully, and couldn't resist taking a look at Patricia, who nodded slightly, indicating that Ryouko should be the one to speak.

"Does this have anything to do with whatever it is in my brain?"

She knew either way that Valentin, who had after all overseen her transfer into a clone body, must have known at least that there was something there. Probably a good deal more than that.

For the first time, Valentin looked uncomfortable at the topic, glancing at Vlad, whose expression suggested he had no idea what she was referring to.

"Yes, I was obviously briefed on that before I undertook the process. In truth there was little that could be done but see if your soul gem would regrow it. Since it wasn't part of your main somatic genetic code, it wasn't otherwise going to return on its own. That was in fact the main delay, waiting for that process to finish once it began. And no, the plans I'm alluding to have nothing to do with that."

"Does Mami know about any of this?" Clarisse asked. "She asked us to be reassigned here, after all. That's what she said."

"Not that I know of," Valentin said, "though in this case I could just not know. It's possible the idea was suggested to her. I didn't play a direct role in that."

There was a brief awkward silence, to which Valentin appended by saying:

"It is natural to have questions, and I'm happy to answer what I can, but I of course can't talk about too much. I came here to deliver this information for your sakes, but also because I legitimately wanted to bring Director Tao here. His results are truly interesting."

It was clearly intended as an end to the conversation, and Ryouko looked around at the others to see what they thought.

It felt novel trying to read Clarisse's expressions, but she could sense internally that Clarisse felt overwhelmed, even if she didn't show it, and wanted some time to think, without an avatar. Asami looked deeply worried and even slightly angry, unhappy that her life was being buffeted around by revelations that seemed to emerge out of the blue. Ryouko could sympathize, though she had gotten more used to it at this point.

For her part, Patricia had lapsed in a sort of thoughtful silence, one whose meaning Ryouko could only guess at. Perhaps Patricia wanted to take a look at the code for this new generation of AIs for herself?

"Well, how is that talk going?" Ryouko asked, accepting the coda to the previous topic.

Even if she couldn't shake the odd feeling that what Valentin had said was still a little too convenient, there would be time to regroup and ask more questions later, once they thought of them. She didn't seem like a woman who let more information leak than she truly intended.

"Thank you so much," the man said as Meiqing watched the drones carry him away on a stretcher.

"Just doing my job," she said, trying not to sound too proud or too casual. She wasn't sure if she succeeded.

He nodded, and she watched him leave. He was a wreck of mangled limbs and shattered bones, but his core was largely intact, and that was enough for the implants to keep him going, buried for nearly a month under the ruins of the colony, mercifully unconscious.

She looked at her hands, then at the giant pit in front of her, where she had labored painstakingly to extract surviving colonists from the earth. This had been an emergency defense bunker, buried deep underground. The Cephalopods had drilled downward and detonated heavy explosives, mercilessly collapsing the structure on all within it.

This colony hadn't been large enough to warrant a planetary redoubt, and had been written off by both sides after it was swept up in the Euphratic Incursion—the squid had only purged it halfheartedly, too occupied by other work. Thus, there were survivors.

It was a different feeling from combat, she reflected, and different also from X‐25. In both cases she had known she was doing good, but combat with the squid was a desperate struggle, and combat with other humans engendered mixed feelings.

There was none of that here. Only the sense of a job that needed to be done, the satisfaction of success, and the quiet sadness for those who were already dead. They had all done their best, but it wouldn't be enough.

She looked up at the smoky violet sky, hearing a rumble in the distance. When she had been assigned here on her return from Earth, she had assumed her unit would be on assault duty, working on exterminating the aliens still holding out, now themselves relegated to underground bunkers. After all, Meiqing was a natural choice for that kind of work.

Instead, that was being mostly handled by drone waves and human specialists, deemed not worth the risk of sending magical girls. She could understand that, and preferred rescue work anyway. It was surely the case that they could be more usefully assigned elsewhere, but… Command probably thought they needed something more than just leave. A bit of psychic and spiritual affirmation couldn't hurt.

She stood there a moment longer. He had been the last survivor their sensors and designated clairvoyant could find. All that was left after that was bodies, and that could be left to the digging drones.

You are ten minutes late for an important meeting, her TacComp thought, apparently having decided that wordless pings and nudges were no longer sufficient.

"Yeah, yeah I know," she said out loud impatiently. "I had work to wrap up, obviously."

She turned away from the pit, shaking herself and ridding herself of dirt with a small magical puff, before abolishing her costume entirely.

She loped her way easily back to the local command post, impervious to the slippery mud, blast craters, and crumbling hillocks strewn in her path. The other magical girls, especially the one with plant powers, lamented endlessly what war had done to this land, and how ruined it all felt. Meiqing could see their point, but secretly enjoyed it. It was her element, after all, and she enjoyed fantasizing about what she could do with it given the chance.

Finally, she approached the outpost, a dirt‐colored bunker that barely protruded above ground level. That it was visible at all was a concession to the effective end of combat, and even then the average magical girl, without earth powers, would have had difficulty finding it without the internal map.

"Lieutenant," an armored trooper acknowledged verbally at the doorway, voice textured oddly by the suit's built‐in speakers—a deliberate affectation, added by the designers so that people could always tell the difference.

He saluted vaguely, and she returned the gesture in kind.

She jumped into the descent shaft, letting the antigrav generators at the bottom catch her and slow her fall past reinforced layers of earth and rock. In more dire times, the lack of a typical elevator served a purpose: no aboveground concussion could easily disable the system, clogging the way in and out with twisted metal or debris. If the way did need to be blocked, explosive charges set throughout the shaft served nicely.

She landed adroitly on the platform at the bottom, surrounded by bored‐looking technicians and guards, who were unimpressed by how she used her reinforced body to spring back off the ground and somersault her way forward, saving a few precious seconds.

She dashed her way past command post staff and magical girls on break, including a short‐haired girl scraping samples of luminescent bacteria off of a wall. Everyone needed a hobby, she supposed.

"You're late," Asaka's bodyguard commented when she arrived, in a voice dripping with disapproval. Meiqing didn't care for the girl, to say the least.

"How's the rescue work going?" Major General Shirou Asaka asked when she stepped into the office, without looking up from her work table, whose blast‐resistant glass was currently displaying schematics of some sort. Civilian visitors were often startled by the seemingly retro aesthetic of bunkers such as this, but it made more sense when they realized that the contents were rated to survive the concussion of a nearby underground nuclear blast.

"Well," Meiqing said simply, noticing as before that Asaka hadn't commented on her lateness. They were too separated on the command hierarchy to interact much, and indeed it was odd that she had been called here alone, and without any idea of what she was being summoned for. But this was far from the first odd thing to happen since X‐25.

"Please, take a seat," Asaka said, prompting her to realize another oddity: there was no one else in the room, when every other time she had been here, there were at least four other staffers in attendance.

"So, uh, what's up?" Meiqing asked, suddenly nervous in a way she hadn't been before.

"You have a visitor," Asaka said simply, without immediately looking up from the table, leaving Meiqing at a brief loss.

The "visitor" appeared momentarily, however, entering from a side door that led into the command centers of the bunker, accompanied by a girl she did not recognize.

"Oh, Nana," she greeted after hesitating longer than she liked to admit, stuck between the usual form of address in Standard and the habits she had developed from her brief stay in Mitakihara, where it was still common, for example, to refer to Ryouko's mother as Kuroi‐san even when not speaking Japanese.

But, in the end, this wasn't Japan, and most of her contact with Ryouko's aunt had been on the mission to X‐25, where they had spoken either in Standard or via machine. Plus, the other girl that had walked in was North American, and it seemed rude to use unusual forms of address in her presence.

The reminder of X‐25 gave her a slight chill. After all, hadn't Ryouko said she'd been recruited for X‐25 in pretty much the same way?

"Hello, Meiqing," Nana responded smoothly, with the casual insouciance that seemed universal among the older set. "It's good to see you again."

Despite the unusual situation, Meiqing had little difficulty believing that was the truth. They'd gone through X‐25 together, and that meant they knew each other, however short it had been and however little they had spoken directly. It was funny how that worked.

"Good to see you," she responded, deliberately turning her head to watch Asaka leave the room without comment. She arched an eyebrow in questioning.

"I've just been following up on some loose ends from the last mission," Nana said, "now that there's been a bit of time to work through all the particulars. I'd like to have my associate here, Cynthia, do a sweep on you for residual traces of magic, then do a short interview, with your permission."

I don't really have the power to not give permission, Meiqing thought sardonically, but nodded nonetheless.

She sat patiently while Cynthia summoned a wand reader and applied it to her skin and clothing. Ryouko had been cagey about what exactly it was that Nana did, other than that she had been involved in planning the raid on X‐25, but Meiqing had gathered enough to know it wasn't worth asking what this was all about. She figured that if there was anything special operations types like Nana were willing to tell her, she'd hear about it whether she wanted to or not.

Finally, Cynthia finished, nodding at Nana. Then, without having said a word, the girl left the room.

"So, what was that about?" she asked, just to fill the conversational void.

"It's a bit paranoid, but there's been some suspicion that there was some kind of magical manipulation of the events on X‐25, so we've been doing due diligence on the idea," Nana said.

She paused, leaving Meiqing to wonder if an empty‐sounding reason like that could really be believed.

"Anyway, we also wanted to ask some questions about what you may have sensed while there, and also your inferences about the events that happened," Nana added a moment later.

"Go ahead then, I suppose," Meiqing prompted, her eyes sliding over to the austere metal door that led into the room, before snapping back again.

The interview started, then dragged on, almost meaninglessly. The truth was, there was very little to talk about, and she couldn't imagine what it was Nana wanted from her. She had spent plenty of time thinking over the events of X‐25, even dreaming about them. There was no way around the conclusion that there was nothing she could have done to make things go differently, to spare the casualties they had inflicted early in the mission. Her therapist had even drilled this point home during their brief session on Earth, as if that fact would lessen the guilt she felt.

"I know it bothers you," Nana said. "It bothered me too, and I'm old enough to know better. I can't help but think about what we could have done differently, if there was any way to know."

Meiqing looked up. She knew for a fact that Nana wasn't a mind‐reader, but then…

"You totally zoned out on me there," Nana said, flipping her ponytail with one hand. "It wasn't that hard to guess. I read your psych file. You've mostly handled it fine, but what happened there bothers you."

Meiqing shrugged vaguely. It wasn't that there was no use denying it, more that… well, really, she just didn't know what to say.

"What do you hope to find out from this interview?" Meiqing asked instead. "I know it might be improper to ask, but as far as I can tell this doesn't really serve any purpose."

"What do you think the cultists were up to?" Nana asked, ignoring Meiqing's question. "I want your opinion."

She leaned forward onto the desk between them, pressuring Meiqing with her posture, even as Meiqing leaned back in her cushioned seat,

"The leader was pretty definitive on that one, I think," Meiqing said, "even if it didn't really make sense. They probably had some vague idea about coming back to take down or at least expose Governance with an army of magical girls. People who know they want to do something, but fall down when it comes to actually executing. Not all that unusual. I guess they expected their faith to come through in the end."

"That's rather dismissive," Nana commented neutrally. "What do you think of the other parties that were involved in this?"

"They clearly helped talk them into it," Meiqing said. "Though for what reason I can't imagine. It seems like the intent was that we'd never find the stealthed base, because of the nuke. That suggests to me they wanted to do what the cultists were doing, without their role being revealed in it. I can only imagine they were interested in making magical girls from clones themselves."

"Do you think Akemi Homura might have had something to do with it?" Nana asked, watching Meiqing with a meaningful expression. "After all, the Incubator claimed there was a statue of her there, and they are not known to lie."

Meiqing glanced around the room for a moment, uncomfortable with the aggressive question‐and‐answer rhythm of the conversation. She wasn't used to being drilled repeatedly like this.

Unfortunately for her, there weren't any answers embedded in the door, the ceiling, or the smooth work table they were seated at. There weren't even any ambient screens for her to look at.

"I don't know what to think about that," Meiqing said. "Officially, she's dead, but everyone knows she only disappeared. That being said, I have doubts she's really involved. Having a statue there is a bit much, isn't it? Everyone would have seen it, and the moment anyone was captured, we'd know all about it. I doubt the real Homura would ever condone it."

"Hmm," Nana said, making a show of looking at the floor thoughtfully. Meiqing had the sudden sense that they had entered the real meat of this "interview", and felt just a tad nervous.

"You weren't contracted when Homura was still around, though," Nana said. "For that matter, you weren't even born when Homura was still around. That's a lot of guesses to make about her behavior."

Meiqing wavered, taken aback by the direct challenge.

"Well, it's just a guess," she said, leaning forward onto the table herself. "Homura was supposed to be super‐competent, right? And I can only guess that she wouldn't try a crazy magical girl cloning project like this, at least not without asking the Incubators about it first."

"Then why do you think the statue was there?" Nana asked.

Meiqing shrugged elaborately, wondering what Nana was digging at, and leaned back again.

"I'm not sure. It could be a deliberate red herring, but what kind of cult puts up a giant statue as a red herring? To mislead people in the future in case they get destroyed? That doesn't make sense. They must have had some kind of religious reason, but I can't imagine what. What did they say when asked?"

The last question slipped out casually, in the course of thought, and only right after she said it did Meiqing realize that it could be taken as a probe for information, information she didn't explicitly have clearance for.

"The future, yes," Nana mused inexplicably, without immediately acknowledging the question. "Tell me, have you ever heard of a group called the Far Seers?"

Meiqing searched Nana's eyes for a hint at what she was getting at, since the question seemed to come out of the blue, but found nothing of use.

"No," Meiqing said, shaking her head to show she meant it. "Or, at least, not really. There's rumors about a group like that on the Grapevine sometimes, but it's conspiracy theory‐type stuff. Nothing too solid. They're some kind of religious group?"

"Well, they wouldn't call themselves that, but some of those who know them might," Nana said cryptically. "They're not publicized. A cabal of the MSY's best clairvoyants and other psychic‐type people, who convene on occasion to meditate on matters. This is for your ears only, by the way. The MSY isn't keen on too many knowing about them."

Meiqing made a perplexed, or perhaps just bemused, face. So this particular conspiracy theory was based on something real. Too bad she couldn't feed the information back to the rumor mill in good faith.

"Well, if it weren't for the magic and MSY secrecy, they'd sound kind of like a cult themselves," Meiqing said, hoping Nana wasn't herself a member of said organization. "What do they meditate on?"

"Whatever they want," Nana said. "Sometimes what others ask them to. Sometimes they organize little field trips. They're a very eclectic organization. You're probably wondering why I even brought them up."

"I was… wondering that, yes," Meiqing admitted. She also wondered how this interview had gotten here, and what relationship any of this had to the supposed topic. It sounded interesting, but…

"The Far Seers are a bit like the Oracle of Delphi," Nana said, "in that they are insufferably vague. Apparently the Founders had high hopes for them when they were first formed, but the Far Seers have always been frustrated by what they claim is the universe's unwillingness to reveal its secrecy. A form of fate."

"Uh huh," Meiqing said, watching Nana's hair bob up and down as she talked. There wasn't much else to say.

"Nonetheless, they have proven useful at times," Nana said. "Indeed, they suspect that their occasional truly startling insights are more than mere coincidence, and are perhaps driven by the overall pool of wish energy, or something like that."

"Right," Meiqing echoed.

"In any case, because of their history, the MSY often has occasion to consult them, particularly when it comes to important or mysterious matters such as the colony on X‐25."

Meiqing finally began to see the outlines of how this conversation was shaped, though she still wasn't sure where it was going.

"And what did they say?" she asked, bracing herself against the armrests of her chair. She had a sense the answer would be, as they say, a doozy.

"A bit more than might usually be expected, actually," Nana said. "Even though, as is typical, it was nothing that clear. There are a lot of threads running through that planet, which they say they're still having difficulty untangling. They think Grigori really did see Homura at some point, though they have no idea what happened, and doubt she had anything directly to do with his cult. There were anywhere from two to five different entities with some kind of agenda on the planet, either in establishing it or in stopping it. At least two of those have more knowledge of the future than would otherwise seem to be possible. And."

Nana stopped seemingly mid‐sentence, as Meiqing was still thinking over "two to five entities". What did that even mean?

"And?" Meiqing prompted, a moment later.

"And they're convinced Homura had a hand in the selection of the team that entered the underground complex on X‐25, even though that seemed to be purely Kyouko's decision. She somehow made sure certain people were there, including me, which is an interesting thought when you consider how close to the edge we ran that operation. It would have taken only the slightest divergence for us to make a different decision and set off the nuclear device."

Meiqing felt a sudden chill run through her spine. One hardly had to be a seer to know the kind of things that might imply, and for the first time in the conversation she forgot about her odd surroundings.

"If you're trying to ask whether I know anything about this, I don't," Meiqing said, shifting in her seat. "All I know is I was on regular assignment, and then suddenly I'm deployed instead on some secret rogue colony, reassigned to Kyouko's personal staff, fighting clones in an underground Spec Ops mission! I wasn't ready for any of it. If you don't believe me, you can ask my MHD psychiatrist!"

Her tone came out harsher than she'd expected, so she took a subtle breath to cool herself.

"No, that's not what I'm trying to ask," Nana said. "We've combed your actions before the mission through and through, and we have no reason to believe you're anything more than you seem. Nonetheless, the Far Seers are convinced that Homura, or more likely someone working for her, managed to manipulate events so that you would be assigned to X‐25. We've been auditing the decision‐making chain, but have not found anything of importance."

Nana paused, perhaps gauging Meiqing's reaction, before continuing.

"But let's not get too sunk into an adversarial interview. I don't think you're hiding anything. I'm just curious if there's anything you can think of that might answer some of these questions."

Meiqing took her time with her answer, embarrassed by her previous strong reaction. She tried to be methodical, using her TacComp to sort through her relevant memories. Akemi Homura was so distant from her that she might as well have been in another universe, and yet…

"Well, honestly, the only thing I can think of is through Ryouko," Meiqing said. "That's the main reason I think I ended up on the mission. Sure, I have earth powers, but I know there's at least a couple of others with similar skill sets. And I can't imagine that Kyouko would want to bring me if I weren't connected with Ryouko somehow, given… what Ryouko has told me about her beliefs."

She only touched upon the topic of the Cult, partially because she was unsure what Nana thought of it, and partially because Ryouko had never told her very much. What little she knew was gleaned from the occasional side comment and what Asami had told her. It was clear to her that, whatever the two of them told themselves about their Cult involvement, they were in deep. Deep enough that Ryouko seemed to think the supernatural was involved in the wormhole mission, and deep enough that the Cult leader was treating them like VIPs.

Meiqing herself didn't know what to think of that. She had never been a fan of religion—her family had steered very clear of it after the events of the Unification Wars, and the incident on X‐25 certainly hadn't changed her mind about religious people being a little… confused.

But she couldn't deny that recent events had left her more than a bit confused herself.

"Hmm, yes, that's also the only thing we could think of," Nana said. "There's a fascinating chain of causality that runs through Ryouko, and involves a lot of people who are hard to investigate, Kyouko perhaps chief among them. We've had difficulty working through it all. And, of course, she's my niece. I can't say I haven't noticed that unusual coincidence, especially given that the Seers are convinced Homura got me involved too. That's a bit disturbing, considering she was once my mentor, and I've been trying to find her for twenty years."

Meiqing blinked at the seemingly casual revelation, starting to check reflexively over her shoulder. Was she supposed to be hearing this?

"I've never seen the Far Seers get so interested in a topic," Nana said. "They're convinced something really big is going on, that there are way too many coincidences to be just coincidence. From what I've been told, they're really mobilizing. I don't know what to make of it."

Nana smiled oddly.

"I'm not just leaking information like a sieve," Nana said. "At least I hope I'm not. I attended the last meeting myself. They gave me some very specific advice. They said I should hire you."

Instead of blinking this time, Meiqing kept her eyes open, searching Nana's face for any sign that she was joking, or that she herself had misunderstood.

"Uh, hire me?" she repeated. "For what? Another mission?"

Nana smiled, as if letting her in on a funny little secret, which, Meiqing supposed, she was.

"No, for something more permanent. At this point you know far more than the average girl about the darker aspects of what we do. Especially after what happened at X‐25, and what I've told you today, your training cycle will be a lot shorter than most, and I see from your file that you have no current mentors."

"You want me to become a spy?" Meiqing asked. "Or some kind of specialist in rogue colonies? I don't want to be involved in anything dirty, any more killing of civilians. I've had enough of that for a long while, I think."

"No, no assassination missions or anything like that," Nana said. "I'm primarily in an investigatory arm of the organization, and your role won't be anything too terribly crucial—more like an intern or assistant than anything. But, I can't promise no violence, or no killing. As you saw yourself, being in an investigatory arm didn't stop me from being involved in X‐25."

Perhaps seeing the hesitation and unhappiness on Meiqing's face, Nana seemed to pause thoughtfully, considering what to say next.

"Let me tell you something that my own mentor told me once, back when I was your age."

"Homura?" Meiqing asked automatically, before regretting the interruption.

"Yes, her," Nana replied, without seeming fazed. "She told me that many people, including many who should know better, think that intelligence work is only for the callous, and the cold‐hearted. In truth, that's a bit like saying that finance should only be done by the greedy, or combat by the bloodthirsty. Those are the people who want to do it, but not the only ones who should do it."

"What are you saying?" Meiqing asked.

"I'm saying that I think of the reservations you have as a good sign, provided that you're otherwise suited for the work, even though you probably don't see it that way. I did have my eye on you, a little, but you would ordinarily be way too young and inexperienced, even for an assistant's role. Then again, I suppose Homura took a chance on me when I was young too."

"Are you saying I should do something like this even though I wouldn't enjoy it?" Meiqing asked. "That's quite a sacrifice to ask of me."

"I'm not saying you wouldn't enjoy it. Just that you shouldn't have to relish the parts of the job that are bad."

Nana shook her head.

"I have to say, there are many girls who would jump at something that sounds as fantastic as a posting in the Black Heart under me. When the Far Seers suggested I try this, I assumed that meant you would consent easily. But, I'm not interested in forcing you, Far Seers or not."

"Tell me why I would want to do this, then," Meiqing asked.

"You would make a difference," Nana said. "Just like you did on X‐25. It won't always feel good, it will often feel like you're not doing enough… but you will sometimes feel like you're making the world a better place. Perhaps more than you would facing the aliens in combat."

She was ready to say something skeptical, something to cool Nana's obvious certainty that she would accept, but something made her stop and turn the thought over in her head a few times.

It wasn't as if she thought she wasn't making a difference here, but… for better or worse, she had come to realize that the service was a form of solace for her, something to get away from her demons at home. There, she always felt like she wasn't living up to the family name, that she wasn't doing her part to redeem it, even if her parents themselves never pressured her that way. Out here…

Well, no one would ever question someone who got herself seriously injured in the war.

She was too practical and realistic not to know her own problems, but too caught up in them to be able to escape. The inclination was self‐destructive, but…

"Can I have time to think about it?" she asked, choosing the safest option. "It's a big decision, so I'd appreciate the time."

"Of course," Nana said, nodding, smiling slightly. "That is entirely reasonable. I'll leave you a virtual address, and you can give me a decision within, maybe, two weeks? I'd hate to rush you."

"That's fine," Meiqing said.

Nana seemed to think for a moment, then continued:

"Alright, well, I have a few other questions…"

"Do you remember what you said to me once, Homura?"

Yuma's own voice sounded odd to her, and it took only a moment for her to realize that this was a deeper voice, an older voice, one she hadn't used for a long while.

She was dreaming, then, and the fact mildly surprised her. It was rare that she slept, and even now part of her still thrummed along in consciousness, observing matters quietly.

"You're being vague," Homura said, in that straightforward way of hers. "What I said when?"

Yuma took a moment to look around, not yet ready to continue the topic. Pieces of the world came into focus as she examined them: the polished steel of the elevator, the impassive composite visor‐plates of their trio of armed bodyguards, the logo that was stenciled onto their armor, and even into the elevator walls. It was abstract and blue, a projection of Earth as seen from the North Pole, embraced by the branches of an olive tree, all of it in front of a symbolically‐drawn shield, meant to represent protection and defense.

In these days, it would have been appropriate for the EDC logo to incorporate a sword, and maybe a few lightning bolts, she thought.

"All those years ago, when we were young," she said. "When I needed reassurance about my family."

The guards continued to stand impassively. They were technically her guards, two fully briefed TNCs and one bona fide MSY member, dressed in armor she didn't need. Bodyguards assigned to defend an Emergency Defense Commissioner, EDC-Vigilance-Controller, classified personal name Nonaka Kuroe. Or Chitose Yuma, to her friends.

"Let's wait a little on that topic," Homura said, quite reasonably. The topic of her family, the Southern Group, was secret even to the guards.

So they waited in silence, each lost in their own thoughts, until they reached the bottom of the shaft. A part of Yuma knew what the place would be like: claustrophobic and dimly lit, all bare synthetic concrete and surveillance cameras, and visored guards to scan them all thoroughly, but in the dream her mind focused only on one particular detail, a small sign in front of her that said:

Maximum Security, Special Prisoners, Section 001

They kept walking past the checkpoint, shedding their bodyguards as they entered the long, narrow hallway, illuminated by a single row of lights set into the ceiling. This secured zone was one of the EDC's blackest locations, among other reasons because it was one of the only places where MSY involvement in EDC affairs was acknowledged, and where more than merely mundane security was explicitly provided.

Yuma took a breath to prepare what she was going to say.

"You told me once about a divine figure you believed in, a Goddess of magical girls, even, who watched over us all and gave our lives meaning," she said.

She focused on Homura's expression, which remained nearly impassive even as they stopped and faced each other in the hallway. Homura had reacted, though, even though she was trying not to show it.

"Do you deny it?" Yuma pushed, a moment later.

"Of course not," Homura said. "That's not even the only time I talked about Her. But why bring that up now? What does that have to do with anything?"

"Can you really still believe in all that, after all we've seen?" Yuma asked. "After all that has happened? What kind of Goddess allows any of this to happen?"

Homura turned her head away, and Yuma could see in her eyes that she had struck some kind of chord, even if her expression showed only mild surprise.

"It's so rare for you to talk about these sorts of questions," Homura said. "You're usually so committed to the work."

"I'm committed to the work because the work matters," Yuma said. "But that doesn't mean I can't think about other things. Like what the purpose of all this is, or what kind of world we're even making here. I don't think I ever told you, but what you said to me really mattered. It gave me something to think about, even if I didn't really believe you."

Yuma expected Homura to say something acid about how her Goddess didn't need anyone to believe in her, or else to put on an air of impassiveness, in the way that was so unique to her, but instead Homura turned to the blank gray wall and placed her hand onto the surface.

"It makes me glad to know that someone else has thought about it," she said. "The truth is, I'm worried as well. I had thought she would never let us suffer so much, or so long, but here we are. I have tried to ask her about it, but I haven't heard from her in many years, and what little she shows me… I think she's ashamed to see me."

Yuma blinked. She hadn't expected this response.

"Ashamed?" Yuma asked, taken aback. "Do you think She's being held back somehow? Or that She's not powerful enough?"

It felt faintly absurd to talk about Homura's Goddess as if she were real, complete with spoken capital letters, but it was Yuma who had started this topic in the first place. And… well, it was neither polite nor a good idea to disdain someone's religion. Especially not Homura's, given who she was.

Homura turned away from the wall, facing forward once again.

"Not that," Homura said, reaching back to adjust the ribbon in her hair, a nervous tell. "Not that at all. I think She's letting it happen, that it's all for the best somehow."

"For the best?" Yuma said, not bothering to hide the hint of incredulity in her voice.

"The two of us have had to do a few terrible things for the greater good," Homura said, starting to walk down the narrow hallway once more. "Why wouldn't the same be true for Her? For someone like Her, the terrible and the good must be on a truly immense scale, perhaps balanced so far apart we cannot see. But I would be lying if I said it didn't bother me, since I had always hoped to protect her…"

Homura's voice trailed off, and Yuma knew it was a sign she didn't want to finish the thought. The rank and file of the MSY thought Akemi Homura unreadable, but no one was unreadable to their friends. That was a simple truth of life.

"So what then?" Yuma asked, following Homura down the hallway. "Are we supposed to just believe that? Just accept that She works in mysterious ways? What do we do then?"

"You think I know?" Homura asked, voice cold. "There's only one thing we can do, which is keep up our work, to the best of our judgment. There is nothing we can do but our best, whatever the price. You're the last person who needs me to explain that."

Yuma didn't respond right away, instead shaking her head unhappily. Homura was welcome to her life philosophy, of course, but the fact was that it was just a bit… unnervingly intense. Self‐sacrificing, as well. To the point that many wondered how it was she stayed sane, or whether she still was.

Yuma didn't think she was insane at all, which was really even more troubling, considering this Goddess question.

She eyed the rows of reinforced cell doors they now passed, built to house the EDC's most important prisoners, former FA generals and magnates. Magical girls, too, which was why the hallway glowed in her mind's eye with powerful magic.

"Let's carry on with the work, then," she said, words deliberately chosen as they stopped in front of one particular cell door. They both knew what was inside, and why they were here.

The door hissed slightly as it unsealed itself, the sound sinister and menacing in a deeply emotional way only possible in dreams.

"The queen herself," a voice inside the cell commented loudly, before the door had even finished opening. "I didn't think you'd deign to visit me."

The former Zhou matriarch, Zhou Zhi Yi, watched them as they entered, languid gaze concealing a core of acrid hate. She sat, legs crossed, next to a small table and prison‐style bed. There were no bonds, no mistreatment, and even a small basket of fruit on the table. While both MSY and UF had far nastier establishments, VIPs languished in relative comfort.

Why not? Mistreating valuable prisoners only risked injuring them, and there were ways of making someone talk on both the magical and mundane side of things that involved no torture whatsoever. There was no risk of escape, either—after two centuries of experimentation, the MSY had learned to confine its members securely, by the expedient of confiscating their soul gem and placing it under the constant watch of a soul mage. A laborious and expensive undertaking, but manageable for small periods of time. It also ensured that suicide was quite difficult.

"So what is it that you're here for?" Zhi Yi asked, without standing up for them. "Information? Some kind of deal? Cooperation? Or are you here to say goodbye?"

"Just a visit," Homura said, without the slightest sign of being fazed. "We thought it might be worth talking to you."

"It's always about just talking with you," Zhi Yi said, tersely. "That was always the problem. Neither of you would or could ever see beyond the tips of your noses to try anything unorthodox, anything other than the most vanilla utilitarianism. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had this war."

"It doesn't matter who you think started this war," Homura said, with a hint of menace. "It matters what side you chose once it started. We chose the more moral side, you chose the other one. After all that has happened, that's what really matters."

Yuma stayed silent, watching the two veterans trade words. They'd been political allies in the past, advocating policies of aggressive expansion, heavy investment in research and development, and stockpiling of resources in case of global instability. But in the later days, Lady Zhou had grown distant, pushing for investments into projects the leadership would not condone: experimental implants, the interaction of human cloning and contract potential, the manipulation of emotions to control demon spawns. They had thought her only a malcontent, unhappy with restrictive regulation. No one had expected her to defect when the war started.

Homura was talking about it at that very moment, in fact, listing out Zhou's many crimes with a chilling terseness. Besides merely aiding the design and manufacture of the infamous FA Elites, she had pursued the very experiments she and her family had been denied earlier, but further. Further than any of them had ever wanted to imagine.

"I want to know why," Yuma said finally, interrupting. "Why do all this? What purpose can it serve? I don't believe you did it just to know. It's never just about the science. Not with you."

Zhi Yi pursed her lips, even as Homura stood back up straight, ending her tirade in favor of waiting for the response.

"None of your mind rapists told you?" Zhi Yi asked. "I would have thought they would know, given that afterward it felt like I had been scraped clean with a rusty knife."

"We wanted to spare our telepaths any undue time stuck inside a mind like yours," Yuma said. "So they were told to focus on concrete information. They can always come back if necessary."

"Not exactly a veiled threat," Zhi Yi commented, pouring herself some water from the pitcher on the table. "But I guess there's no value in that. I was offended you chose to send them in the first place. I know better than to try to resist. I've seen the footage."

"I'm sure you have," Homura said acidly. "After all, the so‐called Freedom Alliance is hardly above using the same techniques on our own operatives. You helped make sure of that."

Neither of them chose to sit, even as Zhi Yi poured out more cups of water. Whatever fond memories either of them might have had of rosier times would have to stay just that: memories, to be locked up in a box in Yuma's heart where she could throw away the key until after the war. After it was all finally over.

"And you would also know we can't just trust the word of someone like you," Yuma said. "A mind‐read is the only way to really be sure."

"Foolish sentimentality, perhaps," Homura said. "Enough stalling. Are you going to say something or not? As Yuma said, we can easily bring the telepaths back."

"You can't still think that Humanity is fit to rule itself?" Zhi Yi said. "You might pay lip service to the idea, but if it were any more than lip service, I wouldn't be speaking to an EDC Commissioner right now, would I? You never were as good at thinking in the long‐term as you like to pretend."

"We intend to rule in partnership with Humanity, unlike what you planned," Homura said. "Was that what this is all about? Some sick plot to replace Humanity with cheap cloned drones? Where will we get new magical girls then? Or even demons to hunt? Have you thought about these questions?"

"I'm insulted you think I would be so stupid," Zhi Yi said, placing her hand on the table, matching ice with ice. "No, magical girls and Humanity are symbiotic. We take care of them, and they feed us. That's the only relationship that's stable. But as long as Humanity has its flaws—as long as we have our flaws—it will never be truly stable. Long‐term stability is a myth, antithetical to the nature of our existence. We will destroy ourselves, unless the Incubators finally deign to rule over us directly. With infinite time, this is certain. That is entropy."

"And you want to fix these flaws?" Yuma asked. "With these Elites?"

"The Elites were a tool, nothing more," Zhi Yi said. "But the research was not. The Incubators will never let us fix our flaws, because our flaws are what give us our power. Ironic, that. But there is no need to let those who are flawed comprise the entirety of the species. It is a matter of specialization. A small class of normal humans, raised and pampered in the Matriarchies, to carry forth our legacy. A majority—the vast majority—made efficient, to keep our society and civilization stable. And a small group, a very tiny group, as small as we can make it, designed from birth to spawn as many demons as possible."

"You mean suffer," Yuma said, feeling the stirrings of horror slip through her carefully controlled demeanor, even again through the dream itself. "Human minds, designed to suffer, despite the euphemisms you choose to use. Just listen to yourself. You sound sick."

"If you insist on saying that," Zhi Yi said. "But if you've read my studies, if you've looked at the files you've surely captured, you know it's the only stable arrangement, once you factor in the Incubators. Otherwise, any attempt to make Humanity at large healthy, happy, and immortal will eventually incur a counterbalance to restore the necessary energy production. Better that the suffering, the chaos, be confined to a few, rather than be laid upon us all, leading to the inevitable destruction of the race. It's there in the math."

"I've heard enough," Homura said, turning sharply away to head out of the room, motioning for Yuma to follow.

"Oh my, the famous ice queen, unable to be rational?" Zhi Yi taunted. "What's the matter? Still relying on your Goddess to save you? Well, maybe I should have given her more credit, considering—"

The door mercifully sealed shut behind them, and Yuma could finally let out an angry cry, though she couldn't quite punch any of the walls, lest it set off some of the magical defenses.

"What the hell was that?" she asked finally.

"Madness," Homura said simply. "Everyone who has ever studied these topics too deeply seems to succumb to it. I'm starting to think it's a curse; we were right to bar the telepaths from digging into her motives. This is a clear Five‐Seven‐Three."

Yuma nodded vaguely. The words "Five‐Seven‐Three", so ominous to those in the know at the beginning of the war, had almost lost their shock value.

She felt like she had to say something, give some voice to the unease that gnawed at her.

"She's sick, Homura," Yuma said. "You called it madness yourself. I know the MHD isn't capable of saving everyone, but…"

She stopped there, unsure how to continue. Where exactly was that train of thought leading? What exactly could she propose?

Part of her expected a sharp rebuke from Homura, something cutting about Yuma going soft now in the face of a war criminal, but Homura instead shook her head, and showed a glimmer of sadness.

"We have no choice. You know that," Homura said. "Our fate, our duty is to have this all rest on our souls, rather than the souls of others. We cannot let it grow too heavy to bear."

With that cryptic missive, Homura turned on a dime and headed back down the hallway, Yuma trailing.

They were otherwise silent on the walk back, except for the few words Yuma said to the guard at the doorway. He pressed a concealed button, and the rock wall next to him revealed itself to be an illusion, the doorway sliding open a moment later.

Inside, a huddle of girls and women stood over a small collection of sealed transparent containers, glowing with the radiance of a dozen souls. Another group could be seen through a glass door, enjoying themselves in a recreation area as they waited for their shift.

"Director?" one of the older‐looking ones asked, glancing between the two of them.

"We have everything we need from Prisoner Number One," Homura said, clasping her hands behind her back. "I'm invoking Five‐Seven‐Three authority."

"I see," the woman said, with an equally even expression. Both of them were doing their best to project an air of objective calm.

Yuma looked back and forth between the magical girls standing in the room, at Homura with her impassive, crystal eyes, at the older woman with her hard, brittle smile, at the others with their varying expressions of concealed shock, She saw souls, souls that encased themselves in ever‐firmer cages of steel and crystal, seeking invincibility even as their brilliance, their luster, faded to a dull permanent glow.

"Let me do it," Yuma said, remembering what Homura had said. "If I'm going to have this on my conscience, let's not just dress it up in formality and delegation. This is no routine matter; it should never be routine."

She could see the surprise and shock on the faces of most present, though Homura merely arched an eyebrow at her.

Are you sure? Homura thought privately. There's no requirement—

"I'm sure," Yuma said out loud. "I was the one who did this first, after all. Why do you think it's a ceremonial hammer? As magical girls, our responsibility is to face the darkness, not hide from it. Let us do it with eyes open."

Her voice rose to accentuate her words, words she wished deeply to be true.

The soul mage in front of her glanced around the room, then nodded, reaching out to grab the soul gem box from a robotic arm that now extended from the table.

With a hint of reverence, she placed it on a small pedestal that was in the process of emerging from the floor, ducking her head slightly. The fact that the vestiges of ceremony were still respected was a deliberate tactic, to make sure no one got inured to this. It was always a big deal, however much it helped one's mindset to pretend otherwise.

She opened the box, setting the soul gem carefully on the pedestal.

"May the Goddess have mercy on her soul," Homura commented, as Yuma summoned her hammer in a ripple of green.

"Amen," Yuma said, raising her hammer above her shoulder.

There it ended, as it always did, with a decisive shatter that seemed to force her awake. Well‐timed, too—Yuma needed to collect some of her attention back, since she was receiving a new, particularly interesting message. She wasn't ordinarily informed about new contractees, but this one was different, involving a girl who had somehow slipped off her radar, one who had apparently hidden her contract for quite some time, a puzzle her agents hadn't yet managed to solve.

Simona del Mago was an enigma. Perhaps she would be less of one now.