"Like many of you, I was young once—I know it's difficult to believe, bear with me…"
"Though it seems like a dream now, the world was once new to me. Every animal, every person, and every building seemed fascinating and wondrous, a new thing to explore and observe."
"I am here to tell you today that the secret to being a scientist is to never lose that desire to explore, no matter what it is that you do. When the animals and people and buildings gave way to equations and models and experiments, I never stopped looking for a new horizon. I never thought to myself that there was nothing left, that the only discoveries left were incremental…"
"When I first embarked on my career, under the tutelage of Professor von Rohr, all the important problems in Physics seemed solved—the world itself seemed solved. Field Theory had taken us to the stars, the biologists and machinists had solved death, and there was no uncertainty in the future. Humanity could look forward to unimaginable, endless prosperity and expansion, following known laws and organizational principles, and when the cold hand of entropy came for us at last, we could say truly that we had lived a full life."
"In a world like that, what was there left to do but put the finishing touches on the edifice of human knowledge? Millennia of standing on the shoulders of giants, to build an unassailable colossus."
"Von Rohr never believed that, and neither did I, and you don't need me to tell you how this story ends. It now appears that we have quite a world of our own to explore, one again filled with seemingly boundless possibility. It seems gravity is not as well understood as we thought, nor is the Second Law. It seems quite likely that my children, and my children's children, will have plenty of boundaries to push, one way or another."
"To you then, this new generation, I say, the ocean beckons, and you need only set sail, as our ancestors did, and doubtless our descendants will, until the stars themselves grow weary—or not."
— Tao Shaojie, Commencement Speech to the Class of 2457, Thalia Institute of Advanced Studies.
There are moments when woman's hands possess superhuman strength.
— Victor Hugo, Notre‐Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre‐Dame], 1831.
"I hope you appreciate that it wasn't easy for me to bring her in," Shizuki Sayaka said, stretching her arms out in front of her playfully. The matriarch seemed happy, even bouncy, striding forward in a green‐and‐white sundress that was wildly inappropriate for the season—or rather, would have been, if this were anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere except the catacombs of Paris.
Yuma resisted the urge to shake her head at the woman's obvious pleasure, or to peer upwards at Sayaka's much greater height. For whatever reason, Sayaka had chosen to adopt a much older age than usual, a cheerful adult rather than a haughty teenager.
"Oh, this?" Sayaka asked rhetorically, placing a hand on the shamelessly deep cleavage of her dress. "I've got a big family function coming up, and I think it helps to look a bit older, if only for my own mentality. Makes me feel like a matriarch, you know?"
Yuma smiled despite herself, even as she felt a twinge of annoyance at Sayaka so successfully reading her thoughts from her expression. Meeting Sayaka was so refreshing compared to Mami's prim propriety, Kyouko's affected guilelessness, and Kana's graveness. Sayaka had a bit of bubbliness in her demeanor, especially when around those she liked, that wasn't entirely an act. It reminded Yuma of something she herself had long lost, and she was glad Sayaka had retained it, even after what had happened to her first daughter.
Now, Sayaka had the catlike smile of someone immensely pleased with herself, someone who had somehow managed to scoop the vaunted Kuroi Kana and Chitose Yuma on a matter of importance. She always delighted in subterfuge, even if her family connections and other inclinations pulled her irreversibly into the world of MSY finance and politics instead.
"Alright, I'll bite," Yuma said. "How is it that you managed to find Simona del Mago?"
"One sec," Sayaka said, stopping to lean over and whisper something into the ear of one of her attendants.
That gave Yuma the opportunity to stop and appreciate the view. Sayaka had always had a sense of style, a mostly impeccable sense of taste that balanced precariously on the edge of garishness. That applied to this courtyard, a neoclassical affair full of columns that opened up onto a rolling, hilly landscape, full of nestled cottages and lowing cows. Or, in other words, a giant manor slapped right into the middle of an underground French countryside.
It was beautiful though, the artificial sunlight filtering through a set of carefully‐placed trees to land dappled onto finely‐wrought benches and a pond full of rippling fish. Some of it illuminated Sayaka's hair as it streamed over her back, and Yuma couldn't help but be reminded of another haughty, wealthy, and charming girl she had once known.
"I'll never understand why you use runners in this day and age," Yuma commented, as the teenager hurried away from them back into the building.
Sayaka shrugged vaguely.
"There's a lot of answers to that. But anyway, Simona."
She paused mid‐stride, considering the question one last time.
"Lots of luck, but I was also prepared and paying attention," Sayaka said. "The luck was that I came across her in the first place, when I was helping fight that suspicious demon swarm in Paris. You remember that?"
"Yes," Yuma said. "I didn't look into it much myself, but there were two magical girls involved who never registered with the system. One of them was you…"
"And the other was Simona, yes," Sayaka finished, relishing the presentation of the story even though she knew damn well Yuma had read the file she had sent.
"No one else tried too hard to track down either of us, but I was suspicious, given the circumstances," Sayaka said. "I knew why I was staying unregistered, but what was the other girl doing there? For all I knew, she caused the power outage. So I tracked her, based on her fire patterns."
"And you cornered her," Yuma cued, watching Sayaka gesture extravagantly to lay out the scene, standing next to a blossom‐laden vine crawling up a nearby column.
"Of course," Sayaka said. "You don't reach my age without learning enough skills to outmaneuver someone new to the trade, unless they have teleportation or something like that."
"And you waited until now to say anything," Yuma commented tersely, asking for the first time a question that wasn't answered in the report.
"I didn't get the sense she was an enemy," Sayaka said, adopting a more serious demeanor and leaning against the column. "To get her to talk at all, I promised not to break her cover."
"And then you let her go," Yuma said, with a hint of reproach.
"You're very trusting."
"She came back, didn't she?" Sayaka countered, making a sour expression. "I made a judgment call. I would have taken responsibility if I had been wrong."
Yuma didn't bother challenging that, even though she suspected Sayaka would have had her Matriarchy launch a giant manhunt first, before ever admitting she had screwed up.
She shook her head to show her exasperation.
"Alright then, what did she say?"
Sayaka closed her eyes, smiling slightly.
"She said that she wasn't an enemy, and that she had been sent there to tail Shizuki Ryouko and make sure she didn't come to harm in the demon attack. In her words, it was a potential inflection point that had to be monitored."
Inflection point. Now that was terminology Yuma had heard before, in an entirely different context.
"And what did you tell her? How did you convince her to cooperate?" Yuma asked.
Sayaka shifted slightly, perhaps uneasily.
"Well, to tell the truth I didn't have to do very much convincing. She was definitely surprised I caught up with her, but she was also… less surprised than I would have expected. She also clearly didn't want to fight me."
"No one sane and less than three hundred would," Yuma said, shaking her head. "But you're being too vague. There's telling a story and then there's just holding things back."
"That's not my intent," Sayaka said neutrally, turning her head as her attendant returned to whisper something in her ear. "It's just that it's still something I'm thinking through myself, and that's why I didn't mention it in the report I gave you."
Sayaka hesitated, just a little, before continuing:
"I didn't really convince her to cooperate, not really. She said she'd have information for me, important information, but not yet. I just needed to let her go."
"And you did," Yuma said. "Again, I find that rather dubious."
"So I did a bit of a mind‐read, okay?" Sayaka sighed. "Not my specialty, if I'm being honest, but I thought it was a worth a shot. She let me in a little. That's why I trusted her."
"Uh‐huh," Yuma said. "And you didn't put this in the report either."
Sayaka shook her head unhappily.
"I knew you'd be skeptical. But the easiest way to finish this conversation is to just take you to her. You can ask your questions to the girl herself. I'm curious myself, since she hasn't told me very much."
She nodded at her attendant, who curtsied and gestured for them to follow. Yuma mentally rolled her eyes at the triviality of it all.
Can she be trusted? Yuma thought, at Sayaka.
I'd trust Aliana with my immortal life, Sayaka thought. Though for your reassurance, I'd have you know I insist on psychically screening my close attendants, just in case. Also helps when picking out life partners.
I'm not sure how to feel about that, Yuma commented.
The attendant led them into a side alcove of the courtyard, manually opening an oaken door to reveal a vine‐laden portico that led directly up to a stone and marble bridge. An ornate columned archway was erected across the entrance, which was only wide enough for two people to enter at once. Beyond that, the bridge itself reached forward far into the distance in front of them, a walkway that stretched impossibly across an underground gorge of massive scale, converging smoothly to the vanishing point on the horizon.
"It's intended to feel a bit magical," Sayaka said, raising one hand. "Sort of elvish. The idea is that by crossing the bridge you make a journey to a beautiful new land. The family keeps a honeymoon suite on the other side, and we send newlyweds down the walkway with a little ceremony. Well, the ones who like this sort of thing."
Again, Yuma tried to avoid rolling her eyes, even as she laid one hand on the smooth and oddly warm stone handrail, just in case.
"It's not really that far," Sayaka said, sotto voce. "It's a nice holographic effect, but you'll find yourself getting there sooner than you expect. Even I might struggle getting that much space in underground Paris."
She's offering a deal, Yuma thought, returning to the previous topic. An interesting idea, someone in her position offering a deal to us.
You came, didn't you? Sayaka pointed out.
Well, yes, it's not every day someone from the outside tells us about our own black projects. Even if all she was offering was how she knew, that alone might be enough. The other ways of getting information out of a natural telepath are often… inexact.
Yuma stepped awkwardly onto the bridge. The railing wasn't meant for someone of her childish stature, and forced her to keep her arm at an uncomfortable angle. She could have walked without it, but…
Seeing her hesitating, Sayaka grabbed her other hand, flashing the briefest of smiles at her.
Yuma snorted in annoyance. She was being patronized, she knew, because if she accepted the offer she would end up walking hand‐in‐hand with the much taller Sayaka down the bridge, looking for all the world like a mother and child.
She shrugged slightly. There was no one here to see them except Sayaka's attendant, who had stopped in front of them, looking back to see what the hold‐up was.
Yuma took her hand off the railing and smiled back winningly at Sayaka. There were worse fates than being coddled.
The attendant hid her expression and continued down the walkway, the two of them in tow. A waterfall roared somewhere in the distance.
So, speaking of telepaths, do you have any of them here to guard us? Yuma asked. Us old ones are resilient to that kind of thing, but you can never be too careful about wish‐derived mind magics.
Of course, Sayaka thought. Kana isn't the only one with espionage resources, even if that is her thing.
There was a brief moment of silence as they both remembered that the Shizuki family had once been a meaningful, if weaker, rival in that field. Sayaka had lost her stomach for it, and no one could blame her for that.
So that's why you're keeping her in the honeymoon suite? Yuma asked.
It's actually quite heavily monitored, Sayaka thought. And no one is allowed in normally, other than the loving couple. I like to keep my containment facilities classy and non‐obvious.
Yuma chose not to comment that, strictly speaking, no matriarchy should have anything that could be described as a "containment facility".
"Well, we're almost there," Yuma said out loud as a stately, almost Tolkien‐esque manor at the edge of the cliff loomed into view. A large waterfall—a different one from the one she had heard earlier—thundered off the cliffside directly next to the building.
She paused for a moment to take a more detailed look. She had already perceived the trick to the infinite‐seeming bridge: the hologram that projected in front of pedestrians brought objects into perspective just a tiny bit earlier than it should have. She wouldn't bring that up, though, or else Sayaka was certain to say something about Yuma spending too much time with computers.
"Goodness, I have no idea how anyone would honeymoon here," Yuma said instead. "It's so loud you could never sleep."
"I don't think anyone is really intended to sleep here," Sayaka said dryly. "But in all seriousness, there's modern sound insulation installed. I commissioned the place, after all."
Yuma nodded genially, proceeding forward to the oaken double doors that were obviously intended as the main entrance, where the attendant was already waiting.
With a twist of the doorknob they stepped into the mansion, and Yuma's attention was drawn briefly by the stone and marble statuary, and by the achingly beautiful crystal ceiling, which cast filtered light down upon the atrium in a soft cascade of natural colors. She had always had a soft spot for such scenery, the way it reminded her of the nature she had loved as a child, and of sunlit rooms a lifetime ago, or perhaps in a past life.
If it were possible to leave the work, for her to leave behind all that she had built, she might have disappeared into the forest, she thought. She did not know exactly why she wanted this—she was tired of Humanity, perhaps, and preferred the endless expanses of the wilderness, or else of the electronic world. A contradiction, perhaps.
"There's no surveillance here," she said, eyeing Sayaka. "No electronic datalinks. Only an emergency connection."
Not very different from the catacombs of St. Barbara, she thought to herself.
"This is meant to be a place of reflection as well as joy," Sayaka said, ducking her head. "And the occasional unmentionable party, I admit. I think you can guess why I might keep a mystery girl here."
Yuma nodded, following the attendant's lead onto a stone staircase pockmarked with apparent age, grasping an oddly‐warm railing. The staircase turned as it headed upward, past a central statue of a young woman holding the world aloft on her back, surrounded by smaller girls bearing offerings.
Sayaka was showing this girl a lot of trust, she thought. No easy means of communication meant no secret messages, but also no notification when someone left the premises and vanished into the underground forest. Sayaka might have had surveillance installed around the perimeter, but somehow Yuma doubted that.
The attendant stopped at the top of the staircase, gesturing for Yuma to continue forward. Now Yuma felt something different: the soul gem of a magical girl, neither active with magic nor concealed in stealth. Just there, and Yuma could have found it earlier, had she been looking.
This section of the second floor led forward onto another balcony, this one presenting a view of dark forest. In front of that it held a small bubbling fountain, and a brown‐skinned girl seated on a couch reading Notre‐Dame de Paris out of a leather‐bound book.
It didn't surprise Yuma that Sayaka kept a paper library around. Many of her generation did.
"How do you like it?" Yuma asked, deciding that a friendly, social question would be a good way to probe the girl. Plus, she was curious—it was not often you got one of the younger generation to read a real book.
"It's not one of my favorites," Simona said, without looking up. "It's pretty grim, but I've read it more than once anyway. Something about the way the characters interact, each trying to reach their own goals, really speaks to me."
"Uh‐huh," Yuma voiced. "What about Quasimodo? What is his goal?"
"Well, that's the kicker, isn't it?" Simona said. "But, besides him, there's also the villain. He doesn't really start off as one, but he turns into one in the end."
"I would have found it more instructive if he had thought of himself as proceeding with the best intentions the whole time," Yuma said. "But, of course, that's probably not what the novelist was going for. I'm surprised you've read anything at all, though, to be honest."
Simona set the book aside and looked up at her.
"I've… had a lot of time to read, since I have to be careful about when I access the official networks."
"Indeed," Yuma said. She changed her tone subtly, signaling to the other girl that she was ready to get to business, whatever it was.
"I know you will be skeptical about whatever I have to say," Simona said. "I don't expect otherwise. But you'll listen, at least? Free information, or at least what I want you to believe, right?"
Yuma tilted her head to the right, catching Sayaka's eye, then dropped herself into the couch next to Simona and leaned forward with her head in her hands.
"Alright, nee‐chan, I'm listening," she said.
"The people I'm working for are not your enemy," Simona said, in flawless idiomatic Japanese, sitting up and clasping her hands carefully. "We had nothing to do with what was done on X‐25, no hand in attempting to kill Sakura Kyouko, or any of the attempts on Shizuki Ryouko. Indeed, we have been active in helping save her, on more than one occasion."
"That demon swarm in Paris," Sayaka said.
"Yes, and we think that was the fault of our mutual enemies. They really do not like Shizuki‐san. Indeed, one of my assignments has been to keep an eye on her whenever she is on Earth, which isn't frequently."
"But why should we believe you, nee‐chan?" Yuma asked, pretending to look away at a spot among the trees. "You can tell us whatever you want, but that doesn't prove it. What can you give us that will make more extreme verification measures unnecessary?"
Simona looked uncomfortable for a moment, seeming to gather herself. Her fingers tapped nervously on the book next to her.
"I will submit myself willingly to a full soul mage examination," she said. "I came here prepared for this step, and to take this risk. But you will not get my end of the deal freely, since I do not have that proof, only how to get it. I only have one condition, which I think you'll be willing to keep."
"That is?" Yuma asked.
"That whatever results you get are retrieved by your most trusted agent, and pass only your eyes and hers before anyone else," Simone said. "We're taking a bet that when you see some of our secrets, you will see the value of keeping them secret yourself. Part of the value for us here is the convincing of you."
"Well, that makes things easy!" Yuma said, keeping up her faux‐childish demeanor. "If you're willing to do that, then the only thing we have to discuss are the terms of this 'deal' you want to make."
"We have a lot more to discuss than that," Simona said, shading her eyes. "But not, I think, until after the examination. Before I talk about the deal, may I ask how I can expect the examination to, uh, feel? I am actually as young as I look, so I'm not as hardened as the likes of you two."
Yuma traded glances with Sayaka, who she could tell was feeling sympathetic despite herself. There was a certain… melancholic air about the girl that couldn't be denied.
"It will be perfectly fine, possibly even a little pleasant, as long as you don't actually resist," Yuma said, sitting up as well. "That's not a threat, just a statement of fact. If you prefer, it can be done while you're unconscious, but I personally wouldn't recommend it."
Simona nodded, looking reassured after the moment of vulnerability. Yuma had to remind herself that it could all be an act—though if the girl was willing to undergo having her soul gem thoroughly investigated by a soul mage, it would have been surprising if she were lying. Any lies would be uncovered soon enough.
"So?" Yuma asked, leaning back on the couch. "The deal?"
"It's a very simple one, ultimately," Simona said. "We are aware that some of Humanity's best physicists are currently working with my friend Shizuki Ryouko on the project of making a temporary, small wormhole."
Sayaka nodded, and Yuma gestured for her to continue.
"They are very close, but there's a number of ways the experiments might go very wrong, given the amount of indirect energy they will be trying to handle. We have information about the refinements necessary to make sure that doesn't happen. Obviously, this is a project with substantial importance to the war effort, so we expect it will be valuable to you."
"And in return?" Yuma asked.
Simona clasped her hands, taking a breath.
"Eventually, we think you are likely to use what you learn to have Ryouko and her… friend open passages for attacking bases in the Ceph rear. When that happens, I'd like to join them."
Yuma blinked, tasking part of herself with retrieving all she recalled about Simona and Ryouko. If she remembered correctly, Mami had told her certain things about what Simona thought of Ryouko.
"Join them?" Sayaka asked, with audible air quotes around "join".
"If Ryouko goes on any missions associated with this, I'd like to be on the team," Simona said. "If she's making a wormhole, I'd like to be around. You can assign me a minder, imprison me afterward, it doesn't matter. But that's the condition."
"That's quite a condition," Yuma said. "What exactly is it that you intend to do there? And why?"
"Protect her, naturally," Simona said. "As well as some observation. Once you review my memories, you'll see I have no intention of harming her. Rather the opposite, in fact. I'm not unbiased."
Yuma frowned, putting a hand to her chin.
It would be at least a small leap of faith, even if everything in Simona's memories validated what she said. Soul gem examination was foolproof, in the sense that you could be definitely sure the magical girl in question believed everything you were seeing. In fact, it was better than that: it could bypass even Reformatting, accessing what the girl really remembered—even if it was colored with all the usual vagaries of memory. You could detect mind control, hidden traumatic triggers, all kinds of things, even more reliably than you could on a normal human.
But that didn't mean it was immune to all possible schemes. The schemes just had to involve a lack of knowledge on Simona's part.
Which meant certain precautions had to be taken. If there was hidden gambit here, it almost certainly didn't involve the nature of Simona's request: they could strip her of any and all equipment, scan her inside and out and, after the examination, be certain she meant it if she said she intended to protect Ryouko. They wouldn't even need a minder, except maybe to keep a supposedly freshly‐contracted girl with no combat experience from getting in the way.
No… if this was a trick, it was either in how it changed their behavior or the information they were receiving in exchange. But what did they have Humanity‐class physicists for if they couldn't smell a rat?
But still, even if she couldn't think of a malicious angle, that didn't mean there wasn't one.
She filed the problem away to another part of herself to ruminate over. She might submit it to an AI analyzer later for probability modeling, but not yet.
"Alright, tentatively, yes," Yuma said. "I'm okay with the idea, but I'd like to see these memories of yours before deciding for sure."
"That's only fair," Simona said.
"Don't get me wrong, I've reneged on deals before," Yuma said. "Though not without what I hope is good reason. But I'd guess that in some way this is, perhaps, more the opening steps of a negotiation, more than just a single deal?"
Simona shook her head, before pausing to watch a raven that had flown in through the balcony and was pecking at the floor.
"That'd be my guess," she said. "But I don't really know. I've been kept out of the loop on some things. That's why I was sent. Plus, once you see my wish you'll understand why it was also a bit of a favor to me."
"What exactly does a secret organization that has managed to stay off of everyone's radar hope to accomplish?"
Simona was silent for a moment, clearly mulling over what to say, then just watching as Sayaka stretched her hand out casually, the raven jumping onto it. Sayaka pet it with her other hand, and Yuma wasn't sure she even realized what she was doing.
Simona closed her eyes for a long moment.
"We're saving the world, of course."
"I can't get over how weird it feels to be out here like this," Marianne said, ducking self‐consciously behind her old‐fashioned printed menu, pretending to study it intently.
There wasn't really that much to think about, in Mami's opinion. After all, everything here appeared to be some brow‐furrowing patchwork of Indian and Eastern‐European food. Mami considered herself more experienced than her contemporaries with international cuisine, but even she had difficulty parsing the intricacies of curry‐filled Katchapurri, and what kind of cheese went well with her choice. One might as well choose at random and trust the chef knew what they were doing.
Or in her case, allow Machina to choose whatever caught her fancy. She seemed to have taken after Mami in her love of food, another mildly disturbing data point on a broader tableau she tried not to think about.
"You're not undercover here, Marianne," Mami said. "This is a vacation. You do officially work for me. And you know, it's good to be seen together in public every once in a while. Besides, doesn't Odette let you take some trips from time to time?"
"More like she makes me take them," Marianne said, more a grumble than a statement.
Mami let the topic go at that. She wasn't really in a position to berate Marianne, having personally set the example the other woman was following. The truth was, she didn't really know any better than her how to do this. The idea was that she was going to take a long break to collect herself back together and… do what exactly?
She couldn't remember the last time she had taken a real break, which she supposed was part of the problem.
Before my time, Machina commented. But I can estimate based on your previous memories.
Forget it, it was rhetorical, Mami thought.
Mami had started to acclimate to the voice in her head, but couldn't deny that it bothered her. Mentally, it felt like being naked and not being able to put your clothes back on, in front of a younger version of herself. In principle you knew they were your friend and would never judge, but it made her feel vulnerable.
But, runaway analogies aside, she had to admit it was actually rather nice to have a friend to always talk to. There had been points in her life where something like that would have been everything in the world to her.
She sighed, wishing she had some tea to drink.
Ordinarily, she would have buried herself in something she enjoyed doing—cooking or baking, or holding tea parties—but this felt like it demanded a little more than that, so she had reached out a little, did some planning.
Okay, so she hadn't quite gone on full vacation. Instead, she was going on an informal inspection tour of the colonies, a nice low‐key PR trip that was so unadvertised the colonies themselves were surprised when she showed up. That way she avoided having to go on official leave.
The server appeared a moment later, showing Mami a local wine that claimed to be a variant of Rioja. She was skeptical, but it was supposed to be a good pairing with the dish she was getting. A good pairing. Of wine with curry Katchapurri. Or Katchakurri, also the name of the restaurant they were sitting in.
Good Goddess, just what is going on out here in the colonies? she thought, not for the first time this trip. She wasn't a fan of that particular neologism, but she felt better about it now that she had met the potential origin of the term.
Come on, it might be fun, Machina insisted softly at the corners of her mind. You shouldn't be so cynical.
Mami could only do the mental equivalent of smiling vaguely. It was no use hiding her real feelings.
Mami… still didn't know what to do about Machina, other than shoot off a raftful of angry messages to everyone involved in the TacComp project, messages that Machina's very presence made awkward to write. The sheer scale of the screw‐up that must have occurred boggled her mind.
She realized that a part of her didn't mind at all having someone much younger she could take places and experience new things with. It felt like living things all over again, injecting new life into tattered experiences, and stripping off the layers of cynicism that ensured she would never be disappointed by something as ridiculous as the fusion of Indian spice‐based cuisine and a preparation from Eastern Europe.
She took a deep breath, knowing full well Machina could probably hear all of those thoughts. She needed to think about something else.
She tried to focus on the here and now, on Marianne frowning at the menu behind a honed telepathic shield that seemed to scratch at the edges of Mami's mind, now that she knew once again what to do with such things.
It would be rude to pry, so she looked around at the restaurant's décor, the kind of open, vaguely archaic design that seemed to be fashionable on this colony. New California… wouldn't have been her first choice for a visit, but they had other reasons for being here. She supposed she just couldn't resist mixing a little work with her fun.
What sounded like a scuffle at the doorway of the restaurant gave Mami something to look at, even as she honed her hearing to listen in.
"Sir, we have strict instructions. No media," someone's voice said, probably a maître d'.
"I'm not media!" a man's voice insisted.
"Like hell you're not! I didn't get this old to not be able to spot you types a mile away."
That was Kyouko, and Mami couldn't help but smile as she watched her push her way past other customers in line to enter the restaurant, too impatient or too aggravated by the people trying to follow her to wait to be pointed in.
"Honestly, going places with you is such a pain sometimes," Kyouko said, walking up to them. "The last thing any of us needs is a swarm of reporters. At least your bodyguards are nice."
"It can't be helped," Mami said, suddenly in a cheerful mood. "This is unfortunately a public visit, so I can't hide who I am. And I see you brought a friend?"
Kyouko averted her eyes slightly before snapping them back, so quickly that most people would have missed it—but not Mami, who had to suppress a smile. This was a side of Kyouko she hadn't seen since, well, the beginning.
"Maki is a friend," Kyouko said, a bit stiff, switching to Standard in deference to Marianne, and also, Mami suspected, because she didn't want to have to decide which honorific to use, or whether to use "Kishida" instead. Japanese could be too revealing a language sometimes.
Maki sat down politely, without introducing herself, in the modern style that Mami still couldn't avoid feeling was wrong. Sure, everyone had nomenclators, but…
Marianne raised an eyebrow minutely, probably not even aware she was doing it. Mami didn't need telepathy to read her mind: she was aware of Kyouko's reputation and found it rude that Kyouko was bringing a fling unannounced to their arranged meeting.
"Good afternoon," Maki said.
The girl seemed embarrassed, yet defiant. She probably thought she was intruding.
Kyouko should have told me she was bringing company, Mami thought to herself. But maybe it was unplanned, and she's never been that good with the niceties…
Kyouko made a slight grunt that suggested she had started reading the menu. She still wasn't exactly a connoisseur, but had developed just enough refinement to consider poorly‐made food analogous to wasting food, a sore point even in this age of plenty.
Mami needed to save the situation somehow, while also resisting the temptation of reading the minds of everyone in the area.
"How are you two doing?" Mami asked, deciding that it was best to attack the problem point‐blank, even if it embarrassed Kyouko. "Did you do anything for Maki's birthday? I recommended that restaurant, but you never replied…"
She smiled disarmingly, taking a careful sip of her wine, which was better than she expected. Kyouko gave her a look full of murder, while Maki unexpectedly hid her face behind her menu.
"Was it the ramen place?" Marianne asked, picking up the social cue perfectly once she realized her mistake. "I know you love that place. It's so hard to find places that use real eggs nowadays, given the controversy."
"No, we went to a bed and breakfast," Maki said, in a slightly squeaky voice. "On top of one of the skyscrapers. I always thought Kyouko had her own luxury place somewhere, but apparently not."
Whoops, Mami thought, politely avoiding looking at either of them.
Anyway, she thought, this time broadcasting to Kyouko and Marianne. While you decide your orders, let's talk about the serious agenda for this meeting. Kyouko, do you think Maki should be in on this? I don't want to make you feel bad, but it might actually be an issue that she's here.
Again, a glimmer of discomfort passed across Kyouko's face, invisible to most observers who weren't Ancients and old friends.
I know, she thought. But once she heard I was traveling she wouldn't let me go alone. I mean—look, I have stuff I need to take care of, I'm not trying to shut you out. I just have business. I don't think she trusts me.
Mami was forced to suppress a laugh, converting it into an inelegant cough that embarrassed her.
"Sorry, I must have gotten something in my throat. All these implants, you'd think we could take care of something like that," she explained out loud.
I take it we should work around her then? Mami asked.
Yes, because we don't know what we're going to find, Kyouko thought. It could be fine, or it could be dark shit. Look, don't worry—if it becomes too much of a problem, Maki and I can just go to a resort or something. It's not like I have to be involved.
Kyouko paused, making sure no one else interrupted her rhetorical pause by emanating a telepathic perception of thoughtfulness.
Are you sure you're alright, Mami? she thought. I thought you were supposed to be on vacation. This is a vacation?
What else could it be? A chance to meet with old friends, eat, and explore the world together. That it happens to involve something slightly important is just being efficient.
I suppose, Kyouko thought.
In truth, Mami wasn't really as sure as that, but what exactly was she supposed to do? Mope around about a girl who'd been dead for centuries? She missed Akari, but the many years of unrelated memories blurred the situation and took out some of the sting, just as it was supposed to. She had already cried about it, privately, but the hole in her life that was supposed to be there, the emptiness of a spot unfilled, had been sealed shut by something else long ago. There was little else to do but to try to carry on her legacy.
And yet… she couldn't help but think that she had lost something in the process. Even the lows of life were still part of life.
What was it Clarisse once said? Machina thought. Being magical girls deprives us of the ability to be truly sad, because then we just die instead.
Something like that, Mami responded, unhappy with the idea.
Searching for something else to pay attention to, Mami caught the eye of Kyouko's love interest. She'd be lying if she said either she or Yuma were thrilled with Kyouko's choice of partners, but she had seen enough over the years to share the MHD's opinion on the matter. First, do no harm.
And at least the girl seemed to have a good head on her shoulders, since the look she was giving Mami suggested she knew quite well they were talking behind her back. Mami wondered at her real reasons for insisting on coming with Kyouko.
She was given a brief respite from the social interactions by the arrival of her food, which came with a side presentation of local "strongly‐flavored" salad. She couldn't spot anything like that about the assortment of colorful leaves, though.
Look, I can understand the motivation for wanting to do something yourself, Kyouko thought, artfully transmitting the thought even as she spoke an order to the waiter. But in this case I'm not sure we'd do anything other than get in the way. Something happened to Misa Virani on this planet all those years ago, something that may have been erased from her memory. That's nice and spooky, but there's not really anything we can do here that Marianne and the other investigators couldn't do without us.
Mami reached down for a fork, pondering how to respond to Kyouko's question. She hadn't asked Mami anything when she received the invitation, since it had been phrased mostly as a vacation invite, but the question was valid.
You're right, of course, she thought. And really, this is still mostly a bit of a lark, but one that makes at least some sense. I talked with Kuroi Kana, and it seems the Far Seers are very interested in finding out what happened here. Interested enough that they're setting up a séance including Kana herself. After all, the more Ancients get involved in one of these things, the better they tend to work.
You called me here for that? Kyouko thought incredulously. They might be right sometimes, but I'd take a Ribbon vision over that claptrap every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. At least when the Goddess makes you spend a year guessing at the meaning there's always a good reason for it.
Mami stopped, only just managing to avoid coughing on her salad. They hadn't been kidding about the strong flavor, which was apparently released only when you broke the epidermis of the leaf.
Anyway, she continued, ignoring Kyouko's smirk. It can't possibly hurt, and they've come through for us before… sometimes. Hey, it's a vacation, right? For you too. Why not spend it meditating with your old senpai?
Now I know you've got your memories back, Kyouko thought. Geez. Rather than meditating, we're probably going to end up high as a kite on psychedelic drugs. I've heard the rumors about what they do sometimes, don't think I haven't.
Kyouko slurped loudly, working on the noodle concoction that she had ordered. Marianne gave her a look. Earth's cultures still hadn't reached a consensus on whether noodle‐slurping was polite or impolite.
There's a reason they're called rumors, Kyouko. I'm sure this event will be perfectly respectable.
Right. I've heard that one before.
Mami bit back a whole phalanx of pithy retorts. Best not to embarrass Kyouko in front of Maki.
I still can't believe I got pulled into this, Marianne thought.
Mami shrugged and took a bite of her food.
Oh, that's really quite good, Machina commented.
"Now put your soul gems into the fire," the séance leader, a certain Roshni Desai, said. She smiled broadly at the assembled mages, which included Kyouko and Mami, Marianne, the promised Kuroi Kana, the MHD specialist Atsuko Arisu, and Nadya Antipova—not a usual invite, but she had been one of Misa's team members. Clarisse van Rossum was unavailable, busy elsewhere for her usual historical reasons.
They sat cross‐legged on rugs around the central fire, in a room rented from a local cultural association. The location and accoutrements were determined, apparently, by whatever seemed most likely to synergize with the person and locale being investigated. Since the subject was the past actions of Misa Virani on a planet with a high Indian population, that meant they were surrounded by Indian decorations and Roshni was leading the ceremony.
Mami couldn't help but feel a ripple of unease, even as the other Seers followed Roshni's instruction with hardly a murmur. It was the kind of thing that triggered an almost instinctual terror in one such as her. Even if the fire was a "sacred" fire, lit by the magic of the séance leader. Even if.
Mami summoned her soul gem and placed it carefully amid the flames as instructed, noting that for the moment they had somehow stopped burning hot.
"I have to say, I have some reser—ow!" Kyouko began, interrupted by an elbow from Kana.
Mami had to smile at Kyouko's annoyed expression.
"Rest assured, Roshni is not here to kill anyone," another Seer said. "And, in case someone else tries, well, that's why we have guards at the doors, isn't it?"
"Right," Kyouko said, still skeptical.
"Let us begin, then," Roshni said, taking a seat herself. "Close your eyes, and I will attune the fire. After that, we will see."
Stop rolling your eyes, Kyouko, she rebuked. You wouldn't want people rolling their eyes about your Ribbon, would you?
Kyouko sent back an annoyed sensation.
Mami closed her eyes as instructed, and settled in.
"Ah!" she started to scream, lurching awake—or seemingly awake, anyway—almost falling off her feet.
It took a moment for her to get her bearings. She wasn't sure what she was doing, standing in the middle of a busy, colonial street market. Or, now that she looked, why her skin was an interesting shade of brown.
"Well, this is definitely new," a strange voice said next to her.
Mami started to nod, before jerking around violently toward the source of the voice.
"Ow, ow, Mami, you're dragging me!"
Mami let go of the girl's hand, unable to stop herself from bending over and staring at the smaller girl, who looked to be about ten. Like her, she was brown‐skinned, but the general cast of features was, somehow, unmistakable, despite the discrepant voice.
"Oh God… dess," Mami said. "What are you doing here?"
"This appears to be some kind of magically‐induced soul gem vision from the séance," Machina said, putting her hands on her waist and looking around at the bustling market around them. "As for why I'm here, why we're here, and what exactly we're supposed to be doing, I have no idea."
The girl was grinning broadly, an expression that gave Mami an odd feeling in her heart. She tried to recall: Had she ever been like that?
Machina didn't answer this one, but Mami worked it out herself: Maybe. It was impossible to tell what she would have been like if her parents had never died, and she had difficulty remembering the time before that.
Mami shook her head vigorously, trying to clear it. Before very recently, she would have said that visions were a rare thing for her. Now, fresh on the heels of a vision from Kyouko's supposed Goddess and the revelation of her own Reformatting, she was exploring a street market with an avatar of her tactical computer clone, by way of magical séance. How things changed.
It seemed now as if there had always been a whole layer of reality waiting for her, just out of reach.
"Come on, let's go explore a bit," Machina said, grabbing Mami's hand. "I think the vision made us mother and daughter. I can't imagine why. If anything, it should be the other way around."
Unsure how to respond, Mami settled for nodding vaguely, finally taking a look around the market. It had a dream‐like quality, the details fading away in the distance, into a fog that smeared color and image into an impressionist tableau.
Even as Machina tugged at her hand, the girl likewise looked around in fascination. Mami realized that it must have been very novel for her to see things with her own eyes.
One thing was evident. This was a modern colonial market, the vendors standing unflappably in scorching heat as small robots waved insects away from food, or scurried along the edges of tables, or perched watching on the edge of tent flaps.
Machina started to pull her forward, and Mami followed gamely. After all, with no other clues they might as well just start walking.
The vendors greeted them as they passed, treating her as if she were a regular, though every time they used her name it sounded tinny, as if it were being sent through an archaic sound system with bad quality. Maaa—mi. Somehow she doubted that's what they were really saying.
"Hey look, roti!" Machina pointed, tugging at Mami's hand. "Can we get some?"
Before Mami had a chance to respond, Machina grabbed one off the stack, rolled it up, and began eating it, exchanging only the briefest of greetings with the vendor. She was obviously enjoying this, somehow.
They continued together until the stalls began to thin out. Then, abruptly, Mami felt her legs moving of their own accord, turning away from the main walkway, past a Goan sausage stand, and up to an inconspicuous doorway where a hooded woman reclined against the wall.
"It took you long enough," the voice—Homura's voice—said.
"I got here on time," Mami heard herself saying, even as she quickly bobbed her head downward to look under the hood. Yes, that really was Homura, a twenty‐five‐year‐old version of her, at least.
"Let's get inside," Homura said.
This doesn't make sense, Machina thought, as they followed Homura into the doorway. I thought this was some kind of reading of the past, but Akemi‐san? If she had ever really been here wearing a silly hood, she would have triggered every surveillance system on the planet.
Before she left us, she never visited this planet, Mami thought. Maybe this isn't the past after all.
I don't like how surreal this is.
I can't say I disagree.
They stepped into a small flat and were immediately hit by the intoxicating scent of roasting spices and meat. Tandoori chicken, unless Mami missed her guess.
They sat where Homura indicated, and watched as a man—whose face was smeared out—brought them chicken. Mami's eyes tracked its arrival, and she realized she looked hungry enough as to be unseemly. Why?
"Wow, what's the occasion?" she heard herself saying.
"That we traveled all the way to be here," Homura said, taking a seat at the table. "Might as well."
"Your connections are everywhere," Machina said, though Mami suspected the comment was part of the vision.
"I've been building them for a while, of course," Homura said. "I'm sure that doesn't surprise you. But that's getting off‐track. Eat a little, and then we'll talk about why we're on this planet."
Mami did as suggested, tearing into the meat with a gusto that reminded her of Kyouko. The meat was delicious, and the meal went by so quickly she wondered if any time had passed at all—probably not.
"Interesting body, by the way," Machina commented to Homura. "Your usual one not good enough?"
"My main is supposed to be on Earth right now," Homura said, shrugging. "So I had to be someone else to be here without raising suspicion."
Mami furrowed her brow. Body? In the vision she was very obviously Homura, but if in reality she had been inhabiting other… bodies…
That would neatly explain why they had never been able to find her, she realized. But this was just a vision, of course, and one that was taking serious liberties with appearances. She also didn't detect any soul gem signature.
"So what's the deal, Nabee?" her character asked. "It wasn't easy getting on such a crowded planet unnoticed. Earth is one thing, since we have established ways, but—"
Homura held up a hand, requesting silence.
"We've found another testing facility," she said. "On this planet. That's why we're here."
"It can't be," Machina said. "Here? On‐world? That's audacious."
"Well, it's not like it's right in the middle of the city," Homura said. "But it does suggest something. Logistical problems. They may not have all the power we think they have."
"Well, then, what's the plan?" Mami said.
"The plan is the same as always. We shut it down."
When Kyouko opened her eyes again, she found herself on the sidewalk of a crowded colonial street. People pushed past her in flowing, colorful garments, the chaos of the walkway a stark contrast to the eerie, efficient flow of automated traffic control.
There was no mystery as to where she was: this was New California. She had seen a similar scene herself only recently, while she was traveling to meet Mami. The question was why she was here.
"I didn't expect to see you here," someone next to her said, in Standard. "You are the real Sakura Kyouko, right?"
"Yeah, that'd be me," Kyouko said—and resisted the urge to move her hands to her mouth in shock. That was her voice? Standard was a blunt, straightforward language—probably why she liked it—but the high‐pitched lilt she had just spoken with ruined the effect entirely.
Kyouko turned towards the other girl, but her eyes seemed to focus poorly, giving her a blurred image she didn't recognize. Hispanic…?
Then she felt the magical signature.
"Nadya?" she asked. "Is that you?"
"Yes, Miss Sakura. You do realize you don't look normal either?"
Kyouko blinked, then raised her hand, which looked both larger and differently colored than she expected. Her body felt different, too.
"I guess we're both someone else right now," she said. "That's a bit unusual, but then again, these are always weird. I mean, I've never had one with someone else involved, either."
She looked out over the roadway as she spoke, trying to see if she could spot anything useful.
"I haven't had one of 'these' at all, assuming you're talking about visions," Nadya said, mimicking Kyouko's action.
Kyouko suppressed the temptation to evangelize the Church, instead focusing on her search of the environment.
Frankly, she was impressed that this "séance" had worked. She had sat in on a few in her time, but never experienced anything particularly interesting. This one, though, resembled a Ribbon vision in clarity. She wondered how the magic of the assembled mages combined to make this, and whether it really worked the way they thought it did.
Finally she turned and looked at Nadya, the other girl raising an eyebrow at her.
"We might as well take a walk," she said. "For all we know the Far Seers' clairvoyance just dumped us on the street outside, or something like that. Can't hurt."
Nadya shrugged, allowing Kyouko to lead her into the crowd. As they walked, she looked around at the enticingly exuberant storefronts, filled with merchandise and signs that urgently pleaded with passerby to buy, buy, buy.
"It's so busy here," Kyouko said, ignoring the angry looks of pedestrians as she barreled past them. "You don't see this kind of thing on Earth, and we have more people."
"There's more infrastructure on Earth," Nadya said. "Haven't you been on the colonies?"
"Not as much as I'd like," Kyouko said. "I've never been one to stay in one place for long, but the MSY work makes it hard to leave Earth unless it's on business. It's a lot easier now, with the Church. I should have had that idea a long time ago."
She thought, not for the first time, about Mami's idea before the war, that they take an extended vacation. In retrospect she had been totally right.
Kyouko stopped, looking up at a sign that caught her eye.
"What is it?" Nadya asked.
"Local sweets shop," Kyouko said, gesturing at a store advertising "Indian desserts". "Might as well grab a treat. To be honest, Indian desserts have always been a bit too sweet for me. Not to talk shit about someone else's culture—it's definitely on my end."
"Too sweet? For Sakura Kyouko?" Nadya said dryly. Something about her new accent made it sound particularly sharp.
"Hey, that's rude—" Kyouko said, feeling at her clothes instinctively for some of the food she was usually carrying around.
She stopped when she found something bulging in her pocket.
Nadya leaned over to look as Kyouko unwrapped what appeared to be a piece of paper.
I'll meet you at Café Arabica.
"Not exactly a wordy message," Nadya said.
"Yeah, but paper," Kyouko said. "No one does that anymore, unless they're trying to avoid being noticed. And why do I have a message from her?"
She stood in place for a moment, wondering if she should still try to get some food, before shrugging.
"I guess we got our notification, but how exactly do we get to—"
Nadya poked her in the shoulder, pointing at a vehicle that had stopped at the curb.
Kyouko snorted, casting a skeptical eye at the transport, which was a bit less high‐class than she was used to.
"I guess that answers that. So we are being pointed somewhere."
"Is it always like this?" Nadya asked, as they ducked their heads to step inside.
"What? With the Goddess?" Kyouko asked. "Only sometimes. She likes to mix things up. You just go along for the ride."
She chose not to comment that asking her about her visions was tantamount to conceding Ribbon visions were real. Another time.
She spent a quiet few minutes watching the city—town, really, by Earth standards—whiz by her window, details hazy, like an old romantic painting. She started to wonder how long the ride would be, feeling abruptly tired. If she just closed her eyes for a moment…
"This isn't just a vacation, is it?" Kyouko asked, snapping awake even as she spoke the words.
"No, it isn't," Misa Virani said, seated across from her. "It's about finding answers."
Kyouko's eyes widened, and she twisted her head around to look at her surroundings. She found herself seated with Misa and "Nadya" at a three‐person table placed on the rear balcony of a café. They were seated at the edge of the balcony, next to a steel railing that was all that separated them from a sheer drop. Looking down, she could see a heart‐stopping rock cliff, massively tall, with the ground below shrouded in mist.
In front of them was laid out the temperate wilderness of the planet. She had heard that the city they were in was set on top of a large mesa, and apparently this café was perched right over the edge, but this was ridiculous. She'd have to pay a visit later with Maki, and maybe Mami, before they left the planet.
With an effort, she tore her eyes away from the view, focusing on the scene in front of her. On the table were three identical cups of coffee and date‐filled pastries, as yet untouched.
Picking up the pastry, she looked at Misa, and saw that the girl was clutching a necklace in one hand, though Kyouko could see only the chain and part of the centerpiece. Her hair moved uneasily behind her, coiling back and forth in a way Kyouko had to confess unsettled her.
"I don't believe the official account," Misa said. "There's no way she should have died. She still had power. Instead, she died on the transport ship. I don't believe it."
"If you don't believe it, what makes you think you'll find anything here rather than on the ship?" Kyouko heard herself saying, as Nadya shook her head with obvious sadness.
She took a bite of the pastry, which was as good as she had hoped, the filling sweet and crumbly.
It also gave her time to think. She was hearing herself speak as if she were part of this conversation with Misa, despite having no idea why she was here. She hadn't felt her mouth move, or any kind of mind‐control magic. It had just… happened.
It seemed the vision had assigned them roles to play in a historical tableau. Maybe they were filling in for real people who had been involved; maybe it was just a construct of the vision.
So she was after one of the missing girls, Kyouko thought. All those years ago. And now she's missing too. This pisses me off.
"There's no real reason to think I'll find much, if I'm honest. Blind hope, mostly," Misa said, cupping her coffee with two hair tendrils. "I just feel like I should be doing something. And, like I said, I don't believe the official account. If something else happened to her, I'd just like some closure. Or someone to be angry at, at least."
She looked piteous, and Kyouko couldn't help but feel a twinge in her heart. She knew what it was like.
"So how do you plan on looking for anything?" Kyouko found herself asking. "You're not exactly a clairvoyant or a detective, and you're supposed to be here on vacation. Are you just going to ask around?"
Misa smiled slightly.
"I'm not without my tricks. Every magical girl beyond a certain age has a few skills they keep off the official radar. And haven't you been wondering about my friend here?"
She gestured at Nadya, whom Kyouko looked at questioningly.
Nadya simply returned the look, shrugging slightly. She didn't know what Misa was talking about either.
May as well let this vision do its piece, Nadya thought.
"And what about your friend here, then?" Kyouko asked after a pause. "Is she some kind of clairvoyant? I wasn't exactly expecting someone to meet me at the starport."
"I like to keep things discreet," Nadya said, smiling slightly.
She took a sip of her coffee, before withdrawing the smile.
"Well, I specialize in tracking people," she continued. "Technically it's not… what I do, but my power does make me good at it, so I run a private eye service on the side for people who need it. Pro bono, not like I need the money."
"She and I go way back," Misa said, looking down at her drink. "I just never thought I'd need to be a client."
"No one ever thinks that," Nadya said, patting Misa on the hand. "But we'll find out what happened to her, don't you worry. Between the two of us there's nothing we can't do!"
"Then what are we waiting for?" she asked. "You asked me out here to do this, then let's do it, and see what we find."
Misa nodded, opening the palm of her hand to reveal the necklace Kyouko had spotted earlier. It was a simple‐looking charm, blue crystal formed into the shape of a crescent moon, slightly iridescent. It bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a soul gem she had seen once, but that was probably a coincidence.
"It was hers," Misa said.
"Can you give me a little history or description of what it was, what it meant?" Nadya asked. "I know it's a little personal, but it will help me."
"It was a keepsake from her parents," Misa said, sighing. "She asked me to keep it for her, before her last assignment. She obviously thought she might not be coming back. I was her team leader once, a long time ago. I mentored her."
"Can you give me some idea where she might have been on this planet?" Nadya asked. "It would help the tracking a lot to know somewhere, anywhere that she's been."
"I can help with that," Misa said. "Kind of. You'd be surprised how many systems on both sides of this war still use some form of electricity. Anyway, the transport ship carrying her soul gem docked at the military starport in this city just after her soul gem was lost. The only thing it did after that was get destroyed by a squid raid on its way back. If there's anything anywhere, it's at the military starport."
"Well, a starport is a particularly difficult place to track anyone, given the number of people involved. But I've done it before, so let's find out."
"Let's go, then," Kyouko said. "Well, maybe after we all finish our food."
They sat there in silence for a moment, Kyouko blowing through the remains of her meal, then watching the others eat.
Just as she was starting to get worried that the vision would insist they all get on a transport and head for the starport, her surroundings started to blur, and the séance room came back into her perception for a moment.
Unable to resist, she cracked open an eye and saw the fire glowing a kaleidoscope of colors over their soul gems. The colors seemed to pull her in…
"So she's definitely been here, and moreover she was alive when it happened, but she wasn't conscious at the time," Nadya said when Kyouko opened her eyes again. "However, I can sense who was moving her, and try to follow them instead."
"Do you know who they were?" Misa asked. "Do you know what they were doing?"
"No, that's not something I do," Nadya said. "But let's see what happens when we follow this line."
If she already knew this much, why didn't she just ask for help? I'm sure the Soul Guard could have helped if she explained all this, Kyouko thought.
I don't know, Nadya thought. But she was always headstrong. Maybe she wanted to see for herself, or she just didn't want to lose time.
Or she probably did ask, earlier, and no one believed her, Kyouko speculated. Hard for her to want to ask again, even if she had more evidence.
Maybe, Nadya thought.
It burns me up to think that after all we've been through, one of our vets didn't want to ask for help. What's the point of all this if we've got girls like her trying to play detective on their own? Kyouko thought, making sure a piece of her frustration carried through.
Nadya sent back the telepathic equivalent of a shrug, and Kyouko shook her head. She was too young to understand.
I know you're involved in this somehow, she thought privately. This looks too much like one of yours. But why did you wait so long?
Her Goddess did not answer.
Mami found herself standing in the hallway of what appeared to be… a hospital? A laboratory? She couldn't quite tell, because the walls and doorways looked faded and lacking in detail.
They've cleared out, "Homura" thought, apparently from elsewhere in the building.
And apparently in quite a hurry, Mami—or rather, the character in her vision—responded. They left everything here.
Everyone, you mean, Homura replied. I'm just glad we made it here in time. I'd bet you all the files are wiped, though.
Of course, Mami replied.
As she spoke, she swung her head around to get a better look at her surroundings. Homura had clearly referenced people with her line, but Mami couldn't see anyone. Just empty, stripped‐down hallways and the vague silhouettes of equipment.
She was reminded of what the Far Seers had always whispered about their visions: that they had a mind of their own, revealing or withholding information for often inscrutable reasons.
"Inscrutable, my ass, is what Kyouko would say," Machina said, putting her hands on her hips. "Not this time."
Mami looked down, then nodded in agreement. She'd been around the block long enough to know when information was being deliberately held back. And unlike all those years ago with Akari, this time she had an idea who was doing the holding back.
She stood there, staring down the hallway for a long moment, waiting for something to happen, for her character to start walking into one of the rooms. When nothing happened she turned and looked the other way, Machina following her lead.
"Hold it right there," a voice said behind her. "Keep your hands where I can see them. Transform and I drop you."
Mami felt herself raising her hands, and couldn't help but feel a little nervous. Visions couldn't hurt you, right?
Mami? What the hell are you doing here? Kyouko thought, apparently somewhere behind her. Kyouko's and Nadya's magical signatures had appeared abruptly in her awareness, along with a girl she couldn't identify.
You tell me! Mami complained. I just got here.
She thought about explaining that Machina was here too, but decided it would be too weird. If Kyouko didn't ask…
"Turn around, slowly," the mystery girl said.
It's Misa Virani, Machina thought. You've heard her voice before, though I'm not surprised you didn't recognize it right away.
Mami felt herself following the instruction, turning so that the other girls came gradually into view. The three of them stood fully transformed, with Misa in the center. The two girls next to her, apparently Kyouko and Nadya in this vision, held vaguely threatening postures, but Misa clearly meant business, floating ever‐so‐slightly off the ground with hand pointed forward. Her hair flared outward and upward, crackling slightly.
She's angry, Mami assessed automatically. But she's holding it back, or she could have disabled me—whoever this is—easily, given how surprised I am.
She risked a glance at Machina, who was also standing with her arms vaguely raised.
As a rule, it just wasn't safe to hold an unknown magical girl at figurative gunpoint, whatever your powers or backup. You just didn't know what they were capable of. If you were going to try, like Misa was trying, it was only logical to keep yourself fully charged, so to speak.
"I'm not your enemy," Mami heard herself say.
"Really? Then what the hell are you doing here, with all… this?"
Misa almost spat the last word in disgust, and Mami felt her stomach turn slightly. She was starting to see the outlines of what was going on here.
"We're here to stop it," Mami explained carefully, eyeing Misa's hand nervously. "We have nothing to do with what was going on here."
"A likely story."
Before Mami could respond, a new magical signature flared into existence nearby, and more than that, an aura, unmistakable, even after two decades. Mami barely resisted the compulsion to turn and look.
Homura, she thought.
This time, she knew.
There was no lead‐in to the next phase of the vision. Mami felt as if she had literally blinked, only to find herself outside again, looking out over a valley below.
It took her a moment to get reoriented. She was standing on the edge of a sheer drop, shaded by a temperate forest that was nearly Earth‐like, even if the tree bark was oddly‐colored. Next to her Machina and Homura stood likewise, gazing out at the scene before them.
Said scene, a lush valley nestled beneath the flat‐topped hill that hosted the provincial capital, was so idyllic it took Mami a long moment to realize what they were looking at.
Down below, angry trails of smoke emanated from what looked like the ruins of a building, complete with multiple craters.
"Was it really necessary to have her be so dramatic about taking the building down?" she asked, looking at Homura. "Probably half the city saw that lightshow, and the other half definitely heard it."
The former First Executive's expression was distant, perhaps thoughtful. Mami knew that face: mentally, she wasn't really here. It always gave the impression that some kind of deep planning was happening, even if Mami knew for a fact that sometimes Homura was just plotting what to have for dinner.
"Well, no," Homura said. "And in fact it's probably a lot flashier than I'd like. But it's hard to rigorously determine what someone will do after they've been Reformatted. Even with consent."
"I still can't believe she let you do that," Mami said.
"She understood the logic of the situation. She's over a hundred, so she's no spring chicken. The thing about getting that old is, you learn to do the smart thing, the thing that needs to be done. Even if you hate it."
Homura sounded sad, or perhaps angry.
Mami could only agree with the sentiment, even as she mentally shook her head ruefully at the situation. Something had happened here, something that Homura and her fellow… co‐conspirators… had moved to stop.
Was this why Homura had stayed away? If so, why did she feel she had to work separately? Why couldn't she trust her friends? That, alone, hurt more than Mami cared to admit.
"So what now?" the vision asked of Homura.
"We go back to what we were doing," Homura said. "You, me, and her. One day, we might have need of her again. Until then, we continue the work. The work is what matters."
"The work is what matters," Mami agreed.
"The mathematics here is truly inspired," Vlad said, holographic expression pulling itself into a ghoulish smile. "Core 1 has been chewing on this class of problem for decades now. I'd love to see the looks on their faces when they finally find out what the solution is. If they had faces, of course."
Director Tao closed his eyes in reaction to the comment, shutting the world out for a moment. He always thought more clearly with less sensory distraction.
He put his hand to his chin in a gesture of thought.
"While I share your distaste for Core 1 and their, how shall we say, processing power fetish, I have to say it would feel a lot better if we were the geniuses here. Gloating over solutions derived by others feels… less satisfactory."
The AI tilted his head.
"Of course," Vlad said. "But I will still enjoy it."
Tao smiled slightly to show his agreement.
"Regardless of the origin of that particular insight, we have nothing to be ashamed of. This endeavor was the product of many minds. I brought champagne for a reason, after all. Shame you won't be able to share it."
He gestured at a bag he had tied securely to one of the poles in the room.
"We AIs must live human experiences vicariously," Vlad said, raising one hand in mock toast.
Tao turned, gazing through the window in front of him, looking over the preparations that were finally near completion. Below him a work crew of research staff, along with many of Vlad's drones, ran final tests on the new experimental apparatus, far more elaborate than they had thought necessary before. As he watched, one of the signaling mechanisms began flashing a red warning light.
Many things about the situation felt odd. Being here on Adept Blue, collaborating with a formal rival. Standing on the observation platform watching others work, instead of working feverishly on the equipment himself. Several other things, such as the arrival of a prestigious magical girl observer that apparently had quite a lot of pull.
He couldn't help glancing over at the "Clarisse van Rossum" in question, who was already waving back at him. Worrisome, that one.
Above all he couldn't suppress his unrest at the origin of the solution Vlad had touted. An unknown benefactor, which Governance refused to disclose, whose advice they had been warned to scrutinize very carefully—it was hardly a situation for much comfort. He knew Vlad shared the same concerns, even if the AI chose to project a confident facade.
Math was math, regardless of the source, but…
"I understand the concerns we all share," Director Valentin said, evidently gleaning his thoughts, "and this is the wrong specialty for me. But, if what you told me is true, the derivation prevented us from making a potentially disastrous mistake in the wormhole creation process. And the security specialist von Rohr has fully verified the new systems. We can only have faith in our talents."
He nodded. He could have used a security specialist like that back on Eurydome.
"Dr. Tao, Dr. Valentin, I'm sorry to have to interrupt, but I believe the experiment is soon to begin," said Vlad, bowing his head at a slight angle.
Tao said nothing, knowing better than to disturb the computations of a laboratory AI with trivial social niceties.
Instead he watched silently next to Valentin, hands clasped behind his back, as the two girls stepped tentatively into the now‐empty vacuum chamber. Asami looked up at the new additions to the structure, which protruded bulbously from the walls. An inelegant design, but easy to calculate.
Valentin smiled down at the two of them and waved, and Tao followed the gesture a moment later. He really needed to learn to be better at that sort of thing.
The girls looked up, seemingly surprised by something.
Vlad raised a thumbs‐up gesture shortly afterward.
"We're ready," he said. "Don't worry if you don't get it right the first try. There's plenty of room for calibrations."
His voice boomed out of hidden speakers around them and, they knew, inside the suits of the girls below. A moment like this seemed to call for dramatic audio.
"We're ready," said Ryouko, dropping Asami's hand, which she had been holding awkwardly. Even after all that time on Eurydome they still seemed uncertain around each other. They were, he thought, too young—his own daughter would be that old in only another half‐decade.
He pushed that thought far away.
Asami nodded in agreement with Ryouko, then turned towards the center of the room, raising both hands in the summoning gesture she favored.
Tao looked to the right, at the gravimetric monitor set into the right side of the observation window. He was hardly alone in doing so—Valentin was already staring at it, as were the few staff in the room behind them. Only Vlad stood impassive, with no need of visual monitors.
"We are powering on the chamber," Vlad said. "You will lose gravity in a moment."
There was no visible change in the chamber, but the monitor changed colors dramatically. A civilian might have expected the girls to start floating, but even a reasonably bright student would know that there was no cause for them to lift off the floor if they weren't moving.
"You should feel a slight tug," Vlad said. "That will be your signal that the arrangement is online, just as we practiced. You may proceed when ready."
The monitor lit up in an appealing arrangement of reds, greens, and shading, just as it had in their simulations. But they had done nothing new yet.
Then the center of the arrangement started turning a new shade of purple. Asami was at work.
"Steady. No need to rush," Vlad said encouragingly.
Tao looked away from the monitor, unable to resist taking a direct view of something he still found oddly beautiful: A controlled singularity, a perfect circle of impossible blackness appearing in front of the girl's hands and heading inexorably for the center of the chamber. It seemed to move achingly slowly.
He held his breath for a moment until it floated into place, hanging in the vacuum for a quiet moment. Then he looked at the monitor.
"First pulse imminent," Vlad said. "Three seconds."
The monitor showed the brief countdown. Two. One.
Despite the reinforced structure around them, and the careful field cancellation, the room shuddered slightly, and Tao felt a tug towards the glass. He could only be amazed that the girls had somehow stayed still, resisting the pull without any source of counter‐force. Magic.
The monitor was exploding with shades of purple in the center. A second countdown appeared.
"All personnel, brace," Vlad said.
Tao had already grabbed one of the handles on the wall. They had planned this.
This time the tug almost jerked him off his feet. He was envious that Adept Blue had generators of this kind of power.
"You alright down there?" Vlad asked.
"Yeah, nothing I didn't see in combat," Asami radioed back. "Not any worse than the dry run."
"Last pulse," Vlad announced.
This time, rather than feeling pulled towards the window, he felt himself being shoved forcefully away, the pressure hammering his chest, such that it felt hard to breathe. He closed his eyes and gripped the handles tightly.
When he opened his eyes again, he relaxed. That was the last pulse, he knew, though he kept his hands on the handles just in case. One couldn't be too sure. He remembered vividly the act of sabotage on his lab.
"She's doing it," Valentin said, seemingly unfazed.
Tao didn't need her to specify what she meant. The next step was to see if Ryouko could take advantage of the environment, and the girl was already raising her arms, matching her partner's gesture.
The room held its collective breath.
Then the singularity seemed to grow larger, to the size of a human head, then a wheel, then a small dining table.
With a sense of awe, he realized that it wasn't black anymore. Not perfectly. Instead, it was subtly brighter, and a moment later it seemed to clarify, providing a view of… stars. An unrecognized handful of stars gleamed through the hole in space‐time that rippled gently in the chamber below, the light at the edges swirling as if caught in an eddy.
He caught a glimpse of the monitor in the moment afterward, displaying a configuration he had previously only seen in models.
Then the circle vanished, and the girls dropped their arms, looking up at the assembled observers.
"I'd say that was successful," Vlad announced. "You girls did great!"
The room erupted into cheering, and Tao, smiling broadly himself, turned to start the celebration, reaching for the champagne in its reinforced glass.
Then he saw Valentin, who was still standing in front of the window, looking down, expression unreadable.
She turned around a moment later, probably sensing him watching. He raised the bottle questioningly.
"Let's drink a toast, then," she said. "Once you get that bottle open."
"And once the girls get up here," Tao added.
"'To the girls,' then," Vlad suggested. "'And all the hard work that made this possible.'"
"'And to the work yet to come,'" Valentin said.