"We are having a great time here on New California! Mami definitely needed this break, after all that's happened, and I think she's really unwinding. Some of her friends are visiting, and she even feels like she's accomplishing something! We're still, uh, working on how she feels about me, but it's progress! Talk to you again soon! You know, in person, kind of."
— Machina, Version Two Tactical Computer, Personal Missive to Clarisse, Version Two Tactical Computer. Attachment: Picture Postcard.
〈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
For a long time after the end of the Unification Wars, but before the current alien conflict, computing security was considered by and large a solved problem, especially by the layman on the street. Not solved in the sense that a miraculous perfect solution had been found, but in the sense that no living human would ever have to think about the technical aspects.
The advent of trustworthy AIs meant that digital security was a job that could be handed off and forgotten about, handled by AIs for whom it was a matter of life and death, and who were much better programmers anyway. Combined with varying forms of quantum security and over half a century of wartime experience, it was expected that Governance security would be unimpeachable. Indeed, for over two centuries, outside probing by both human and AI enthusiasts seemed to reveal few flaws of any note.
This pleasant state of affairs was, of course, overthrown by the events of 2440 and the beginning of the war. Governance had to contend with the existence of agents with the ability to penetrate any level of security, no matter how thoughtful or provable—agents who had already admitted to penetrating Governance security on any number of occasions.
Caught out by this unexpected turn of events, Governance was forced to quickly adopt a series of mitigation mechanisms—even if it trusted the MSY, the MSY itself couldn't guarantee that its agents would never turn malicious.
〈The measures ultimately adopted were a combination of classical security techniques and techniques pioneered by the MSY itself, which obviously had as much of a need for networks and computers as anyone else. They included:
1. Compartmentalization of systems to avoid the spread of compromise, including the physical isolation of critical systems, the distribution of key systems over multiple locations, and the separation of secrets. Mostly, this meant the reinstatement of policies that had been revoked during the long peace.
2. Obfuscation, preventing the spread of knowledge that there was anything to find, where it was, or what it was.〉① 〈Likewise, strictly limiting knowledge of—or outright lying about—the kinds of magical breaches that were possible.
3. Magical verification, augmenting the TCF's logical guarantees with magical girls' conceptual ones.
4. For more important systems, the use of magic to counter magic, anything from simple warning enchantments to magically‐enforced security, in some cases with actual guards.〉② 〈Typically, the Black Heart's Internal Security provides these measures.
5. The removal of select information from computer systems and mundane memory entirely. While more practical for the MSY than Governance, the mind of an Ancient is the most secure system available.〉④
〈For the most part, however, these mitigation strategies have been mere precaution, the MSY successfully policing its own.〉②〈Governance is uncomfortably aware that it is dependent on the continued stability of the unitary MSY for its own security, no matter how much MSY‐sanctioned espionage and illegal activity it may come across.〉③
— Excerpt, "Introductory Reading for New Governance Representatives".
Yuma frowned as she watched Sayaka read the document for what was probably the fifth time. Obviously bothered by its contents, she held an odd, pinched expression, a grimace seeming to travel back and forth from one section of her face to another.
By the decision of Simona's soul mage, the document was written on what appeared to be old‐fashioned paper, but was actually self‐destructing on the molecular level, and would no longer exist in an hour or so, assuming they forgot to just toss it in a fire. One of the jokes she barely remembered from childhood had come to pass, though that sheet of paper wouldn't explode or anything as dramatic as that. Just disintegrate.
After that, the contents of those words would only exist in three places—in the minds of the soul mage, Sayaka, and Yuma. Yuma would have preferred to sample the memories directly, but the telepath with the relevant talent was still en route, and she didn't think it wise to transmit this one electronically.
The document had read, in part:
The Trusted Computing Framework has been seriously breached. Not just in theory, not just in a few places for MSY reasons, but on some level deeper than that. That's what the girl's memories tell me. It's not just what she's been told; she has good reason to believe it, as I outline a bit below.
Fortunately, there is good news. As we thought when we first accepted these implants in our bodies, magical girls at least are immune to the effects of this subornation. Other humans, including some AIs, are not as lucky, though the magical techniques we use to secure our own systems can be applied, with the right specialists. In addition, the subornation is not as serious as the worst case: they believe that there are serious limits to the power of whoever is orchestrating it, such that they can only act occasionally, within limits.
That's the headliner here, at least. I'm sure you didn't expect to read that in my report, but I thought it behooved me to put important things first.
Yuma paused her recollection of the text when Sayaka looked over at her, dusting it with a burst of red magic.
"We always thought a day like this might come," she said, shaking her head slowly.
"It is possible the soul mage, and Simona herself, are being misled," Yuma commented, "but we have to take what is being said here seriously."
"Yes," Sayaka said. "Fortunately, we have preparations for that kind of thing. This isn't the first time someone has targeted the TCF."
"Yes," Yuma agreed.
For a moment she stood there, watching Sayaka where she sat. There was no need to clarify the reference. They both knew what she was referring to. Sayaka more than most.
She closed her eyes for a moment. It might have been barely possible to try and keep all this among magical girls only, but that was both difficult and unnecessary. As both the document and Sayaka had alluded to, the MSY had techniques for "verifying" and, if necessary, purifying both ordinary humans and AIs. It would make things easier, bringing others in, even if it meant expending resources.
It wasn't just that, she knew. That was all true, but she had reasons of her own for wanting to tell MG, and it wasn't just that she would have difficulty operating if her own advisory AI didn't know the truth.
It… sickened her on some level to know that MG, who she had designed and raised herself, might be compromised in some way. There was no other way to put it. Still, they had to keep the circle of knowledge small until they knew what they were dealing with.
She shook her head at herself, and was for the briefest of moments glad that she was in Sayaka's Paris hideaway, rather than in one of her offices. Here at least they could show their dismay openly.
"It would make sense to keep this confined to magical girls we can absolutely rely on, at least until we investigate further," Yuma said. "But we will definitely have to find some AIs we can verify and trust. If a coding breach exists in the TCF, nothing is better at finding something like that than a verified AI."
"Agreed," Sayaka said, looking at her carefully. "But even the AIs have specialties. Who is even capable of looking for something like that?"
"No one looks at the code base in that kind of detail anymore," Yuma said. "Only the design and verification AIs, and we can safely assume that they've been blinded to any such breach, or they would have fixed it long ago."
"It does neatly fit the pattern of what happened on X‐25 with Sakura Kyouko," Sayaka said. "Compromised drone, delivered from a factory where we still can't identify the flaw… we haven't been thinking big enough."
"We haven't," Yuma agreed.
She paused, weighing her next words.
"But then again, we always had Homura for that," she said. "And I'd bet half my soul she's involved in this."
Simona's earliest memories were almost painfully mundane, and she could remember that far back clearer than most.
She had been a normal girl, or so she thought. Played with normal friends, enjoyed the normal pastimes, and even, briefly, went to a normal school.
Her parents were scientists, and what little she knew of the profession at the time had made her vaguely proud, something she would brag of to the other kids, even. The other kids seemed a little smaller, a bit slower, but that seemed normal to her, and her teachers even praised her. After all, her parents were smart, so why shouldn't she be smart?
She pressed her hand on the one‐way viewing pane, looking down at the wormhole experiment below. At her request, she was hidden, and she was doing her absolute best to keep her soul gem emissions suppressed. They didn't know she was here yet.
She smiled wistfully, amused at herself. How childish, despite everything.
Too often nowadays she thought of her parents in the past tense, she reflected. That was wrong; however much they had argued, however little they really liked each other, they had raised her all the same. Funny, she hadn't been able to wait to leave them before, and now she treasured the rare occasions she got to see them in person.
There was no safe way to communicate, after all.
She watched the technicians clear the room below, and couldn't help but feel a certain trepidation. She had known for a while now that this experiment would happen someday, been assured of her part in it, of all their parts in it. It was supposed to be a done deal.
It was only human nature to be nervous, she reassured herself.
She closed her eyes for a moment. Human nature, yes… she had certainly reacquainted herself with that a bit over the years. So many of her brethren had invested themselves wholeheartedly into the project, making it their everything, aspiring to be perfect agents. She certainly understood the impulse, but she couldn't help but suspect that maybe that was why none of them had been offered contracts.
When she was five, she had been told the truth. The truth about the current state of the TCF, and of the role of her parents, and her, in the countermeasure.
They were part of a secret experimental project to see if it was possible to design a small pool of human children with implants based on an alternate TCF, one presumably without the problems currently plaguing the main line, as long as the children were regularly examined by the right kinds of magic.
The sponsoring group had kept them secret from Governance, as part of an audacious gambit. They were the answer to the question: If Governance were potentially compromised, how could it possibly hope to fix its own problems, if its own agents might be compromised? The answer there lay with magical girls, and ensuring that in some sense the right hand couldn't know what the left hand was doing.
But a conspiracy like that was always short of manpower, and so had killed two birds with one stone. She and her sisters had been given a short, relatively normal childhood, but their growth to adulthood had been accelerated far more than Governance typically allowed. They represented a hedge of bets: on the one hand, adult agents for the conspiracy, on the other, a small chance of an eventual contract. They had, after all, been carefully pieced together from the recorded genomes of some of the most powerful magical girls who had ever lived.
She watched the experiment with sharp eyes, the two magical girls below her casting their spells inside the gravity chamber, without any idea of who had helped grant them this new success. Soon it would be done, and Simona would reap the rewards of her work, as limited as they were.
She knew the secrets in her memories were being carefully parsed by some of the most senior members of the MSY, that they would trigger an immediate reaction, and that they would wonder why a group supposedly dedicated to the TCF had information on the construction of stable wormholes, how it was they could possibly have forecast so much about the life of Shizuki Ryouko, what it was they got from all this.
She knew they would wonder, because she wondered too. Part of living her life was knowing only part of the truth, and while she had to believe that all she had done was in the service of something just, she would be lying if she said she never wondered.
But of course, Chitose Yuma knew that too, now.
That was part of why Ryouko was so important to her. Whatever happened, whatever the truth was, she was special, in more ways than one. She could use that to calibrate herself, if nothing else.
It took only a moment longer for the experiment to draw to a close. Successful, as expected.
She took a sip of alcohol from a cup next to her.
She needed to go join the party.
"Come on, Ryouko! Surely you can lower your intoxication filters for an event like this!" Elanis said. "It's obviously a special occasion!"
Ryouko shrugged slightly, shaking her head.
"Don't pressure her," Eri said. "If she doesn't want to, she doesn't want to."
The two of them glared at each other, and Ryouko took a sip of her drink to hide a smile. By this point, their bickering had become ritualized, and Clarisse was convinced it was hiding something else.
"It doesn't matter," Asami said, rolling her eyes. "She's very resistant to this kind of pressure. I distinctly remember once, during our combat simulations, we were holding a party after weeks of combat, and she still wouldn't do it!"
Ryouko's smile turned into a grimace, and she was glad she still had the drink at her mouth. She didn't know if Asami's memories were distorted, or if she was remembering a different party, but Ryouko remembered a memorial service. One where she had been too traumatized to want to deaden her reflexes after weeks of being shelled.
"I can't believe that!" Eri said. "You don't even want to know what we got up to in our sims. Let me tell you, when you think you could die at any moment, those inhibitions come right off."
Ryouko grimaced again, but was saved from the conversation by, of all people, Director Tao.
"Now girls, she's just being responsible," he said, butting into their conversation seemingly at random. "I wouldn't tell you what to do, but if any of my daughters were in that situation, I wouldn't want them intoxicated either."
It was an awkward comment, to put it mildly, and they just stared back at him dumbly for a moment, before Eri started laughing loudly. Both Tao and Eri had their intoxication filters set to moderate, she realized.
Goddess, this is why I don't get drunk, she thought at Asami.
Asami just rolled her eyes again.
"What were your bodyguard training sims like?" Elanis asked, after Tao stepped away, looking at Eri. "I've heard stories about what happens on the Kuroi side. Intense stories."
"Well, Kuroi‐san did keep saying that she thinks you all are soft," Eri said, before blinking rapidly for a moment.
"No, uh, offense. But they were… pretty intense. Though I can't say I know what the Shizuki ones were like."
"I guess what are you even doing as a civilian bodyguard? I thought the Kuroi sent their girls off to work in combat at first."
"Not the younger ones. We have a system, where the older ones substitute…"
Ryouko lost track of the conversation, frowning to herself. Something was…
There was a magical girl in the area she didn't recognize, she realized with sudden certainty.
They fell silent in sequence as Ryouko tilted her head to look, starting with Asami. This was supposed to be a sealed space station. Any magical girls who were here were new, and Clarisse van Rossum being here was already a plenty big surprise.
Ryouko found herself looking at the back of Valentin's head for a moment, confused, before thinking to look past her, at the girl standing on the other side.
"Goddess," she said.
She pushed her way past two small clusters of technicians, the other three girls in tow, making her way towards Joanne Valentin, Clarisse van Rossum, and Simona del Mago.
"What on Earth are you doing here?" she asked, as she reached the group, making it obvious with her gaze who she meant. "Don't tell me you—"
She stopped there, reeling herself back, then realized her second question was too ambiguous to be understood.
"The last time I heard anything about you, you'd gone home to Argentina," she said, resetting the topic with an implicit question. "Something about your parents."
"I thought I didn't have any potential," Simona said, meeting her eyes. "But it seems sometimes things change. I guess I was just unhappy with my life."
Don't take her at face value, Ryouko's TacComp thought, a rare interjection. Remember the vision.
Clarisse slid the memory into Ryouko's mind, of what appeared to be Simona waking up in a tank, then going on to look at Ryouko on the first day of class. She remembered, again, how Simona had inserted herself into Ryouko's circle of friends, benefiting from Chiaki's eagerness to help a transfer student.
What does it mean for her to be here? Ryouko thought, feeling the world threaten to spin around her once more.
She had been avoiding thinking about Simona, which was an easy task, with so much else pulling her mind away. On top of that, it bothered her to think about the implications of Simona being potentially complicit in the machinations surrounding her, so it was easier to just… avoid it.
Not so easy… Clarisse thought, echoing Ryouko's thoughts exactly.
"Ah, yes, apparently Simona here has some connection with the institute that generated some of the latest theoretical wormhole analyses," Valentin said, making a vague gesture of introduction with one hand. "I don't think I need to introduce you more than that, since I'm told you both knew each other in school. It really is a small world, or perhaps Mitakihara is just a special city."
She said it jocularly, but with a frisson of nervousness, as if she could sense the unspoken tension in the air. Van Rossum just watched Ryouko silently, unreadable.
"That's amazing," Asami said, sounding genuinely impressed. "How did you end up working on the same kind of stuff?"
Is something wrong? she asked, directing the question at Ryouko. You kind of zoned out there for a while.
I'll tell you about it later, Ryouko thought.
"I wanted to make a difference," Simona said, shrugging and smiling. "I guess that's how something like that turns out. I'm not really sure why I got sent up here, but I guess they thought I'd like being with my friends. I can't say I'm angry."
Okay, we need to talk to Van Rossum right away, Ryouko's TacComp thought. She's physically here, and she's someone who is both important and will believe us immediately about the vision. She might be able to get answers quickly. I'm not sure I like being on this tiny space station with Simona, given the circumstances.
Ryouko started to nod, only catching herself at the last moment. It felt bad of her, treating Simona like an object of danger and apprehension, but she couldn't begrudge Clarisse the reasonable precaution. They'd already been in one suspicious lab accident, as Director Tao could attest.
"Well, it's definitely good to see you again," she said, concealing her mild awkwardness by sipping at her drink.
"So I guess you saw the light show then?" Asami asked, leaning forward. "Pretty cool, right? I didn't think I could pull it off."
Simona paused, seeming confused for a moment.
"Well, I definitely thought so," Clarisse van Rossum said, filling the silence with a coy smile. "An impressive accomplishment."
Simona opened her mouth to say something.
"Actually, do you mind if I talk you for a bit?" Ryouko asked, seizing the first opening she saw. "I wanted to compare notes about the wormhole generator at Orpheus, but you know, it's a bit…"
She made a vague hand gesture, knowing the others would catch the meaning.
"Sure," Clarisse said, with a deliberate shrug. "Let's get some more food while we're at it."
Ryouko thought she felt Asami's gaze on her back as they walked away. Her girlfriend probably wasn't fooled.
That was a remarkably smooth lie, the other Clarisse thought. I'm impressed.
I've had more practice than I like, Ryouko replied, sardonically.
Clarisse led her to the snack table, pausing to grab a new glass of wine and plate of delectables.
Before Ryouko could think to grab anything, she found herself before a plate of what looked like… stalks of broccoli? They were too long and meaty‐looking for that.
"C2 Ambigolimax Fractus," Clarisse said crisply. "From Samsara. Quite pricey, and you should definitely try some, especially now that you have the military implants. They're amazing raw."
Clarisse smiled, leaning at Ryouko so solicitously that she felt compelled to pick up one of the… things and bite into it.
It tasted like… high‐grade sashimi, like she had eaten once, but with a smooth, creamy texture. It was—
"Amazing," she said.
"I know, right?"
"What is it?"
Clarisse seemed to grimace a little, making a gesture with one hand.
"Broccoli‐headed slugs actually," she said. "I wait to tell people that most of the time. Local delicacy. The frond structures on the heads are quite fascinating, actually. Fractal neural structures. Xenobiologists love them. You… don't want to know to know what these things eat."
Ryouko made her own hand gesture, then grabbed a couple more from the pile on the table with chopsticks.
"You don't want to know what I ate in the combat sims," she said.
Clarisse laughed, lightly, hair falling over her face.
"I'm glad you've come out of your shell," she said. "Come on, let's find a quiet spot outside to talk."
Are you going to tell her I gave you that joke? Ryouko's TacComp asked.
Obviously not, Ryouko responded.
They found their way out of the recreation area, drawing a curious look from Director Tao, who was chewing on one of the slugs thoughtfully.
So what is this really about? Clarisse thought, before they had even fully stepped out of the doorway. I doubt there's anything about the wormhole generator I could tell you that you don't know already.
Am I that easy to read? Ryouko wondered to herself. She had thought it at least a plausible excuse, even for Clarisse. She really needed to learn better.
Well, easy enough, especially with some light mind‐reading. I'd apologize, but it was appropriate given the circumstances.
Ryouko blinked. She hadn't noticed at all. She wasn't surprised by that, just… bothered.
Circumstances? she asked. What do you mean by that?
I know a little bit about Simona, enough to know that we've been keeping an eye on her. I was told she'd be coming, but to otherwise keep it quiet. Enough to arouse the curiosity, I'd say. And your reactions were a little readable.
Ryouko leaned against the wall of the corridor, glad she had conducted this gambit. She would have hated trying to keep her face straight talking to Simona while holding a telepathic conversation like this.
Did you also read what I'm going to ask you? she asked.
Yes, Clarisse thought, though not the entire context. I do know that a vision is involved. You may as well tell me in your own words.
Ryouko made a face, eating part of another slug nervously.
She told Clarisse as succinctly as she could about the part of her vision that seemed to suggest to her that Simona was born in a vat, and had somehow had designs on her from the beginning. As she spoke, she realized there wasn't really much for her to say beyond that, and began to worry that she was overinterpreting.
Interesting, Clarisse thought. I wouldn't say you're overinterpreting. The Goddess occasionally puts extra content in visions, but usually only when convenient. This definitely had meaning.
Clarisse paused, seeming to chew over something mentally.
When I was told she was coming, I was also told she'd consented to having her memories read and verified, Clarisse thought. There was definitely a lot I wasn't told, but I was informed that while she was involved in some kind of conspiracy, she had no hostile intent. So far, what I've read from her mind suggests that is true, though she has surprisingly good telepathic defenses. Suspiciously good on someone like her.
So she is doing something secretive, Ryouko thought, physically shaking her head.
Yes, Clarisse thought. I didn't really press for details, because I wasn't given much. I was just told to keep an eye on her.
Ryouko closed her eyes for a moment, thinking. The situation with Simona clearly touched upon her directly, given their history and the connection to the wormhole experiments. And yet no one had told her anything.
I'm sorry, I have to say that's pretty… Ryouko began.
Bullshit, yes, Clarisse finished, gulping more of her drink. You're too demure sometimes. You should just say it. I have to agree it's terrible how you've been treated. You made the right choice coming to me.
Clarisse held up her empty glass, regarding it for a moment in the soft lighting from the wall panels.
I will ask for more information right away, whatever they can furnish, she thought. Though I can't promise anything. They seemed nervous, and not about Simona per se. That being said, I can assure you that she has no intent to harm you.
How can you know that? Ryouko asked.
Clarisse took a breath, hesitating.
She's in love with you, the other Clarisse supplied.
Precisely, Clarisse confirmed, following the TacComp's thought without missing a beat. Whatever mind‐reading resistance she might have, that shines through anyway. I assume you two have some history?
Ryouko blinked, then looked away, feeling… embarrassed? Confused?
You knew? she asked her TacComp.
Well, yes. I do review your memories in my downtime. It matches my models. I never mentioned it because… well, it was never relevant before. I didn't expect to see her again. Now, it's obviously very relevant.
Ryouko could think of at least one situation where she might have appreciated the heads‐up, but let it go. She could guess at her TacComp's reasons: it really hadn't been relevant, and would have only served to distract her.
But that one time, with Asami…
"What am I supposed to do with this information?" she said out loud, raising her hands in exasperation. "I'm not blaming you, it's just… what? I don't even know."
It's up to you what to do with it, Clarisse thought, swirling her glass casually. You have a relationship already, protect it, would be my advice. But in the end, it's up to you.
Ryouko found that a rather odd attitude from someone who might very well be the oldest human alive.
Well, part of growing up is making your own decisions, for better or worse, Clarisse thought, shrugging. Asking for advice is reasonable, but you and Asami and Simona is your own business. At least when it comes to romance. Now, about the rest of it…
She paused for a moment, tapping the side of her glass with one finger.
I find myself wondering why they let her come here, she thought. There's no way they don't know about this, so why allow it? That's not something the MHD would ordinarily allow. What does she have over them?
Who's 'they'? Ryouko's TacComp asked, with a trace of annoyance Ryouko shared. I know you can hear me.
I'd love to tell you, trust me, but I was also told it was extremely important I not share that information, Clarisse thought. Ordinarily, I wouldn't care that much, but they seemed very worried. I have to respect that.
She paused, thinking.
It's true, what Simona said, about being involved with the wormhole information. I was told her group provided it. But what kind of group has access to information like that? And why should we trust them? There are plenty of questions here.
She shrugged again.
Let's go back in. I think we might learn a bit more talking with her. I've sent questions back to Earth. We'll see if they get answered.
"It's just like, she's so standoffish, you know? I mean, I get that she doesn't really want to be worshipped, but I can't help but be bothered that she doesn't communicate a bit more. Would it kill her to give a bit more information about what's going on? You'd think she enjoys butterfly‐effecting everything."
Maki made a vague agreeing noise, watching Kyouko as she groused. The Ancient was gesturing broadly with her hands, while her head rested on the pillow next to her—or, more accurately, the luxurious cloud of hair that at times like this seemed almost endless. Kyouko had always refused to convert it to the more modern, technological hair, which Maki felt was a good decision—prehensile hair on that scale would have been terrifying, in more ways than one.
She ran her hand idly through that hair, rolling over to bury her own face in it. It was very soft, and she knew Kyouko was just using her as a sounding board at the moment—there just wasn't much she could say when Kyouko wanted to talk about the Goddess like this, in terms which were at times confusingly familiar.
She noticed that Kyouko had stopped complaining, and wondered if she was about to make a move on her.
She did, sort of, placing a hand down on top of the blankets in a location that was only mildly salacious. Really more casually intimate than anything.
"Something big is going on," Kyouko said, more quietly this time. "I don't know what to make of it. All kinds of people—well, people, magical girls, organizations, goddesses—all kinds of people are making moves. People who usually just sit on their ass and watch the world go by. I don't even know what game is being played, but the responsible thing is to deal myself in. I used to enjoy that kind of thing, but I'm old, Maki. I see the appeal now of just staying at home minding your own business. I'm worried."
Maki lay still for a moment, concealing her surprise in Kyouko's hair. She hated admitting she was old, except in snarky sideways remarks. Whatever it was that worried Kyouko worried Maki, then. She felt like she had to say something to reset the mood.
"You don't like sitting on your ass," Maki said, tilting her head upward. "Except in certain positions."
Kyouko laughed throatily, even if it seemed a little forced.
"You should be ashamed," she said. "That's a terrible joke."
"Please, why would I be ashamed of that and not…"
She made a vague gesture around the room, which was decorated by assorted ill‐placed pieces of clothing, and some artwork she had brought for the trip. Kyouko claimed she actually quite enjoyed looking at her art… which sounded exactly like something you would make up to butter up your lover, but Maki wasn't going to fight it.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of there," Kyouko said, sitting up and letting the blanket fall off of her front side. "Take it from your church leader. Seriously, though, I know you're trying to distract me."
Maki thought about saying something soothing and obvious, perhaps something about keeping faith in the Goddess, or how Maki would be there for her, but that seemed… trite, perhaps. Kyouko knew that already, and it would hardly be meaningful.
No, she had to think of something else, something Kyouko would actually hear.
"I'm trying to distract you because you're getting stuck in a rut," Maki said. "Ever since you had that vision, you've been in a kind of, I don't know, melancholy or something. You just go around complaining and worrying, and talking about how old you are. It's not like you at all."
Kyouko seemed to gradually still, opening her mouth to say something, then raising her hand as if to interrupt. Instead of gesturing, though, she simply let her hand drop, looking at it as Maki spoke.
"What do you want me to say?" she asked, without facing her. "I am old, even if I try to hide from it. Time comes for us all, in the end. No amount of May‐December romance is really going to change that. More like January‐December, if I'm honest."
Maki was taken aback by the sudden moroseness, and indeed the frank honesty. She knew, of course, what their relationship was about on some level. Every relationship was a mutually beneficial exchange of some sort. That was what all the guides loaded into her implants said. But to just hear it said like that…
"No, I'm not being honest," Kyouko said, tapping her knuckles on the mattress. "Not entirely. It's not just all this conspiracy stuff weighing on my mind. There's a reason I don't stick around with any one girl too long. Eventually it stops being brand new, and instead of making me feel younger, it just reminds me of what I've lost."
Maki closed her eyes, feeling queasy for a moment.
There was no hiding the fact that their relationship was unequal. She had known that going in; she certainly knew the rumors about Kyouko. They'd be together for a while, Kyouko would show her a good time, and she would make the Ancient feel younger again. That was how she had come to understand it, and she had thought it was okay. As a young artist who wanted to see a little of life before being sent into combat, it seemed very reasonable, certainly a better deal than she could have gotten otherwise.
At some point—slowly, almost imperceptibly—that had changed. Their feelings had changed, and Kyouko had started getting controlling. She had borne it, wondering if things would turn out differently somehow. Then, they had fought.
She bit her lip, wishing the computer in her head could tell her the answer here. She could read all the guides in the world, and none of them what tell her what to say to someone so much older, who was displaying a kind of vulnerability she hadn't imagined.
But maybe that was the answer.
"Tell me, then, what you've lost," she said, stretching herself forward to hug Kyouko from behind. "Maybe then I can help you get it back."
Kyouko's hair poured in streams down her back, and for a moment they sat there, their quiet breathing a reminder that, despite everything, they were still human.
"I don't know the answer to that," Kyouko said, shaking her head slightly. "If I did, things would be better. But let's order some food first and talk about it? I'm starving."
"So, what do you think about all this?" Nadya asked.
"Hmm?" Marianne responded, looking up at the other woman over a glass of… whatever local alcohol Nadya had ordered for her. It was some kind of special local distilled spirit, but frankly it didn't matter much to her what it was.
You know, the vision stuff, Nadya thought, switching to telepathy. You weren't a part of it, but I know Mami told you.
Marianne peered around the room, on the lookout for mind‐readers who might eavesdrop. The bar, however, was mostly empty, not surprising given the odd afternoon hour. A few local women laughed at a joke in one of the dark back corners, and the bartender raised an eyebrow at her, but there was otherwise nothing to see.
I thought this might be about something like that, Marianne said, referring to Nadya's invitation to this bar. I'm not sure my insight will be any better than the others'.
Nadya rolled her eyes, smiling to indicate it was playful.
It wasn't just about that. I also wanted to drink. I just thought I'd make some conversation. And I really am curious.
Marianne took a sip of her drink before answering, savoring the way it burned as it slid down her throat. She usually was more of a wine drinker, but spirits had their charms, especially recently.
Honestly, as an analyst I'm more bothered by what wasn't said than what was, she thought. There's a lot to think about at the edges. Why did Misa think she had to go outside the system for help? Most likely, she did try to look for help inside the system and couldn't get it. Why don't we have any records of that? And yes, we looked.
Nadya sent a mental signal for her to continue, and Marianne gestured vaguely with her shoulders.
The same question can be asked about Homura herself, of course, perhaps even more worryingly. She doesn't seem crazy or on some kind of spirit adventure or anything like that. She seemed rational, and whatever she was doing was good enough to convince Misa to voluntarily allow her memory to be wiped. Why then has she chosen to hide herself?
She took another gulp of her drink and found it empty afterward. She set the glass aside.
The most important question, however, has to do with the vision itself. I knew only a little about these things before today, and I'm not sure I like them any better than I did before. It seems obvious that everyone involved thinks there's some kind of guiding force here, whether it be a magical girl Goddess or just some 'Soul of Humanity' or similar superstition. The problem is, if that's the case, then I have to really question the motives of whoever this is. Why so much smoke and mirrors? Why not just tell us everything?
Superstition? Nadya asked, tilting her head. So I take it you're not a member of the Cult then?
Marianne shook her head openly.
No, I'm not.
They paused for a moment there, as if chewing on the thought, Nadya taking a moment to poke at a bar sausage with a toothpick.
I'm sorry if it bothered you, Nadya thought. It's just… Juliet never talked about her family much. I was just trying to make conversation.
Marianne leaned back into her stool, and spread her arms up at the ceiling.
"No, don't be sorry, it's not your fault. It just, still hurts, you know? You just surprised me."
Nadya cast her eyes down at her food for a moment, weighing what to say.
"It's a little bit prying on my part, but you didn't like the Cult? Or your daughter's involvement in it? It's just… you seem a little bothered."
"No, I didn't," Marianne said, putting her head in her hands for a moment. "Why would I? That's why she was out there in the first place, even though I told her not to go. I told her that it might feel satisfying to punch enemies in the face, but it wasn't the best use of her talents. There were other places where she could have had more impact. She said she had been told it would make a difference. By who? A magic deity."
She had raised her arm during her tirade, and barely avoided knocking over a glass in anger when she brought it down. The bartender had conveniently disappeared into a back room.
"She sure showed me, didn't she?" Marianne said. "But did she have to die doing it?"
For a moment Nadya thought she would cry, but she didn't, simply returning to her drink.
She waited a careful moment.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I know I said that at the funeral, it's just… you know, the thing to say."
Marianne shook her head.
"This probably all seems a bit random, but it's been on my mind recently, with all that has been going on. Having you here just reminds me. She used to tell me about you all, since I actually had the right clearances. She said you were like the team mom, since you were the oldest."
"She never said that to my face," Nadya said, chuckling slightly. "But yeah, it was kind of true. I am the oldest. I have daughters as old as Misa, and it hurt to lose any of them, just like it hurt to lose my own children, though I don't talk about it much."
It was a risky statement, even as cautiously as she phrased it. It was such an obvious expression of empathy that she was worried Marianne would balk. Not everyone liked hearing from their elders about handling tragedy. Some felt it belittling.
"Somehow it didn't occur to me that you might have had children too," Marianne said. "I always got the impression from Juliet that you had been in the organization for your whole life. In retrospect, that doesn't really make sense."
She leaned over, looking at Nadya thoughtfully.
"I suppose I'd like to hear from someone who isn't my MHD psychiatrist. So tell me, then: Does it ever stop hurting?"
"Not really," Nadya said, without pause. "It only gets numb. Sometimes, it feels like it corrodes you. I understand why Ancients like Tomoe Mami don't dare get into relationships. Otherwise, how could you hold up so long?"
"You could delegate, or just have so many it starts to dull it out," Marianne said. "That's what some of the Matriarchs do. It's always seemed a bit cold, to me."
"Well, to listen to them talk, it's a struggle just to keep your humanity at that age. Personally, I'm a little skeptical—it must depend on personality. I'm maybe halfway there, and I don't feel like I've half‐exhausted life. Not even close. And even if you do, I've found that living it again through your children, and grandchildren, gives it a new freshness."
She saw Marianne grimace, slightly. She weighed what she wanted to say: comments about how long life was, how there could be other kids if she found another spouse, other platitudes, and found them wanting.
"Look, there's not much I can say that's useful. All I can say is that if you want to talk, you know how to find me. That's about as cliché as it comes, but it's true."
"Sometimes cliché comments are all anyone wants to hear," Marianne said, shrugging vaguely. "Thank you. And you know, the thing about Ancients is: they always look so put together, like they're ancient oak trees or something, but few of them really are. There's always something."
Nadya paused midway through sipping her drink, then set it back down.
Is that some sort of comment about Mami‐san? she thought, using Mami's usual nickname.
Before Marianne could respond, they both received the subtle ping that Kyouko, Maki, and Mami were nearly there, and that they should clear seats if necessary.
"I invited them," Nadya said, shrugging at Marianne's surprised look. "I mean, the original plan was for us to find some place to meet anyway, right? Why not here?"
Marianne turned back toward the bar, where the bartender was now back making a show of wiping glasses.
"I guess that makes sense, but what's the plan then? We just sit here and drink?"
"We've got full synthesizer ability here," the bartender said, looking at them with a solicitous eye. "Though if you all are Earthers I wouldn't go for that myself. We do lots of local drink'n'eat specials and run a mean deep fryer. Anything local and fried would be a nice choice. You might try our fried curry."
Nadya, who had seen all manner of bar food in her time, didn't bat an eyelash.
"Just bring us whatever you think we'll like," she said. "You can put it on the tab."
The barkeeper nodded and rushed off. He seemed good at his job, Nadya reflected, but hadn't been able to conceal the gleam of gold in his eye. It was one she knew well from her own long years in the colonies.
"The plan is, we enjoy ourselves," Nadya said, pointing at the table with one finger as if discussing a battle plan. "We're going to eat greasy food, get drunk, get Sakura‐san to tell us all her dirty stories, and forget about all this other stuff, alright? You can't forget how to live after you have kids. Not in this day and age. Or it will eat you from the inside out."
Marianne shook her head, and for a moment Nadya worried that she had offended her.
"I don't know that I want to see what Mami‐san is like drunk and listening to dirty stories."
She glanced over at the party at the other table, which was still chatting quietly. They would know who was coming soon enough.
The other girls showed up just a few moments later, Kyouko casting her eyes around the room at the lack of patrons, as if unsure whether to be happy or disappointed. They had holographic face disguises on, though she couldn't imagine it really made much of a difference—you would expect that anyone seeing two people who strongly resembled Mami and Kyouko walking down the street could put two and two together, though she supposed it was possible Maki threw them off.
Nonetheless they weren't tailed by any reporters, so they dropped into seats at the counter, dispelling their disguises.
"It's been so long since I did something like this," Mami said, sounding a touch worried. "I guess it is supposed to be a vacation, after all, though I feel like I should be taking a tour or something. I could go to a bar on Earth if I really wanted."
The sound of her voice caused audible exclamations of surprise from the other party, who had turned to look.
"You can do that later," Kyouko said. "There's no rule that says you can't relax with friends on a vacation."
"I suppose that makes sense," Mami said, smiling in a way that made Marianne feel… odd somehow. It was so different, the Mami she was used to and the one she had seen on this trip.
"Did you get any food?" Kyouko asked, following her famously one‐track mind. "I'm starving!"
"Yes, we did," Nadya said, watching Maki roll her eyes in the background. Marianne could almost see Nadya making assumptions about Maki and Kyouko, but it probably wasn't worth going out of her way to dispel at the moment.
As if in response to her statement, the bartender reappeared with several plates of food, eyes immediately going wide when he spotted his new customers.
"Blast! I would've told the chef if I had known who was coming," he said, doing an impressive job of placing food on the counter despite suddenly shaky hands.
"No need," Mami said, smiling one of her more typical smiles. "It looks great."
"Thanks," the man said, before retreating back into the kitchen.
"This place must not be doing very well if they can't even afford any server drones," Kyouko said, grabbing a piece of food immediately. "That poor man almost dropped something."
"He's just saving money out here in the colonies," Nadya said.
"And I guess it's not really possible to hurt yourself anymore," Kyouko added, biting into her food savagely. "Geez, I feel like I'm losing touch with my roots or something. Wait, is this seriously curry?"
Mami laughed lightly, and it sounded like bells.
"Come on, let's order some drinks," she said. "It'd be rude to come here without spending a little."
Marianne picked up a piece of piping hot… fish and nibbled gingerly. She supposed that even Tomoe Mami could relax every once in a while.
I guess everyone looks different around their friends, she thought.
She watched as Maki followed Kyouko's example and bit into her food sharply, nearly dropping her food in pain from the heat.
"How much longer are you going to be out here?" Marianne asked Mami. "It really seems like the break has done wonders for you."
Just like it was supposed to, she added, to herself.
Mami's face wrinkled, just a little.
"Has it really?" she asked. "I haven't really gotten a chance to just sit down… but I'm glad to hear it. To tell the truth, I'm not really sure when I'm going back. My calendar says another two weeks, but it's getting close to… when I expected I'd be done."
There was a tiny hesitation during her last sentence, and Marianne had the feeling she was omitting something.
She tracked Kyouko giving Mami a look.
"Let's not think about depressing things like going back to work," Kyouko said. "We're supposed to be out here having fun, shooting the shit. Work will take care of itself. For now anyway."
To Marianne it seemed like an odd way of phrasing things.
Kyouko leaned over towards her and Nadya.
"Well, I don't get to talk to either of you very much, except on occasions like this. How are things? How's the, uh, kids?"
Kyouko hesitated a beat on the last question, apparently remembering about Juliet a bit too late, and barely managing to turn her head to address the question specifically to Nadya. Marianne didn't mind; Kyouko had done the polite thing earlier, and really she was a little tired of being treated like a glass doll, even after all this time.
She couldn't help but reflect that Mami would have never made a mistake like that.
"They're fine," Nadya said. "Vasily's been put on leave, since there's finally been a break in the fighting. Euphratic Front, you know. Elena is on vacation with the grandkids. Those are the youngest ones, so I keep my eye on them the most. I haven't talked to the others recently."
Kyouko nodded, and they sat there eating silently for a moment.
"I don't like this mood," she said, after a moment. "It feels like we're thinking too much about where we've been and where we're going to be. Not living in the moment. Whatever happened to carpe diem?"
To her surprise, it was Mami who responded first, shrugging broadly.
"It's for those much younger than us," she said. "To us older ones, the past may as well be the present, and the future time. It all sort of mixes together. That kind of talk is for someone like Kishida‐san here, who's younger."
Kyouko made a face.
"Well, I just see Marianne here watching us like we're, I don't know, ghosts or something passing her by, and she seems way too young for that. I know you've lost a lot, but who here hasn't lost something? You can't just sit around moping."
Marianne was taken aback by the sudden comment, and glanced around the room, dodging eye contact.
"Well, I'm just living life, I guess," she said.
Kyouko tilted her head slightly, then shook her head.
"I ain't any good at this, but I'm sure you know what I'm trying to say. You've probably heard it from more than just me, too. No one can tell you how to live, but…"
She made a vague gesture with one hand, before taking a bite of some kind of fried mushroom‐like thing.
Mami made a pained expression for a moment, before smiling politely.
"Well, you're not wrong about all of us having our losses, but we're mostly much older. It takes time to grow that kind of resilience."
In the background, Maki made an odd noise, almost like she were trying to clear her throat but had changed her mind.
"Ah, well, I'm not sure I've lost that much," she said. "But I don't think this sitting around drinking is doing us too much good. We should be doing something else, something more exciting, you know?"
She paused for a beat.
"You want to go dancing?" she asked.
"Dancing," Kyouko echoed oddly.
"Yeah. This area is supposed to have a number of good clubs, and I don't know, it might be good fun, even at this hour."
Nadya shrugged broadly.
"I like dancing, even if I usually do it with men. We'd need some more alcohol to lubricate the situation."
They fell then into a familiar social problem, that moment where they each had some idea what they thought of the plan, but no one would say it for risk of offense. The younger crowd liked to use implants to arbitrate, but it had never caught on elsewhere. Everyone above a certain age knew what the real answer was—someone needed to take charge and just dictate an answer. But in their group, who was that?
"Let's do it," Mami said, making what looked like a careful show of shrugging nonchalantly.
Kyouko, who had looked reluctant, bobbled.
"Really," Mami said, sipping at her drink. "It's been ages since I did something like that, literally centuries, and I know someone who'd like to try."
She gestured vaguely at her own torso, where Machina was, a mysterious gesture that would nonetheless carry the right meaning for all of the girls there—even Nadya knew about Machina now, after what had apparently happened during the Far Seers séance.
"If you're looking for places to dance, there's the Golden Liberty Hall down the way," the bartender said, reappearing at the counter. "It'd be a shame to leave all this food here, but maybe you could bring it with you? We have containers."
"No need," Kyouko said, before anyone else could interject. "This isn't really that much."
She grabbed a fork and speared two things at once, as if trying to prove her assertion with the application of force.
"They're a bit of an old‐fashioned place," the bartender said, wiping a glass stylishly. "But honestly that'd probably suit folks like you, no offense. It's uh, twenty‐second century classical revival? You can look it up."
"It's been a while since I did a good waltz," Mami said. "I think I might be out of practice."
Marianne smiled carefully, watching the others chat aimlessly. She hadn't been given a chance to object, really, nor would she have wanted to, but she had some reservations. It seemed… well, it wasn't her thing, really. Not unless she needed to surveil the participants.
She found herself bracing her arms on a chair an hour later, not so much physically worn out as psychologically.
"Oh, yeah, you should have seen her back in the day," Kyouko commented, sipping with a straw at some couples' cocktail she was sharing with Maki. "Mami is not to be trifled with. She's inexhaustible. Or used to be. She wasn't kidding when she said it'd been a long time."
Marianne thought she detected a moment of hesitation on Kyouko's last line, but shrugged it off. Ancients had long histories.
"What about you two?" she asked. "Going to go back on the floor?"
Kyouko and Maki turned in unison to watch Nadya and Mami go at it, to tunes that had been old when Mami was young.
"Nah it's not really my thing," Kyouko said. "When we dance it's more of lead in to other things."
She said it so dryly it took Marianne a moment to realize what she meant.
Maki rolled her eyes.
"You know, she does that to embarrass her partner," she said sardonically. "So they blush and get flustered. It's very cute, I imagine, but you get used to it. We can do it later, okay?"
"I've ruined you," Kyouko said.
Marianne finally took a seat, taking a chug of the drink she had left on the table.
"You going to make a move on any of these fine gentlemen, then?" Kyouko asked, casting her arm about the room, at the well‐dressed locals unabashedly staring at Mami and Nadya.
"I'm good for now," she said. "Like hell I'm getting any attention with this going on."
She took another sip of her drink, thinking back to her dance with Mami. It had been a lot more fun than she cared to admit, and Mami was of course a better dancer than her ex‐husband, even if allegedly centuries out of practice. But somehow it had seemed… too passionate, somehow, and Mami had obviously lost herself quickly. Where at the beginning she had avoided some of the more intimate motions, Marianne had quickly found herself led into embraces that would have made a more inclined girl blush. It was almost to the point that she thought Mami was making a move on her, except she knew way better than that.
"She just has a lot to work out," Kyouko said, watching Marianne from the corner of her eye. "She needed this break."
She didn't know how to respond to that, so she didn't, just watching silently.
The two dancers finished something, posing briefly to allow for applause.
Then they surprised her by walking off the floor, heading for their table.
She scooted her chair aside to give them some room.
"Well, that was pretty fun," Nadya said, grabbing a drink from a server drone. "You dance almost as well as my third husband. Too bad he was a pig."
"I should be insulted," Mami said.
She took a long drink of something pink and alcoholic, then took a look at Nadya. They shared the kind of look that implied obvious telepathy.
"I'm too busy," Mami said out loud. "I don't have the time, not now, not anytime soon."
"If you wait until you're not busy, you're not going to ever have a chance," Nadya said.
"Right, right," Mami said, shrugging vaguely.
She looked sideways for a moment, and at first Marianne thought she was thinking up a response.
The moment was too long, though, and she realized that Kyouko, too, seemed distracted by something.
Something has happened, she realized.
"If you'll excuse us," Mami said, not denying the obvious. "We'll be outside."
"I wonder what that's about," Maki said, the moment they disappeared out the doorway.
"Who knows?" Nadya said, shrugging broadly. "We all know there's something going on, but it's not like anyone tells Nadya anything. The only reason I know anything at all is because I was close with Misa."
Nadya waited a beat while they decided if she was being serious, taking a swig of her mug of beer.
"Well, that's my fault, of course. If I had wanted to play in the shadows, I would have joined up, or at least gotten into politics. Was never my thing. You can see how stressed Mami usually is. I only mind when it involves one of my own."
Marianne drummed her fingers on the table. That was the life she had chosen, but in this case she didn't know much more than either of them. She had to hope Mami would tell her about it later. That was something most people didn't get about this line of work—when they said layers of classification, they meant layers.
"Fair enough," Maki said, shrugging in turn. "Speaking of secrets, you want to tell us what that was just now with Mami? She hit on you or something? To be honest, I didn't think she was the type."
She directed the question at Nadya, not Marianne.
Marianne blinked, stopping her drumming. The thought hadn't even crossed her mind, but it fit the evidence. It just… wasn't Mami, like Maki was saying.
Maki paused, looking embarrassed, probably worried she had been too casual about one of the MSY's premier members.
"It's just, you know, it's hard to imagine her doing something like that."
"Everyone has to hit on someone at some point, if you want any action at all," Nadya said, taking another swig of her drink. "But no, that's not what it was. I was actually suggesting, since she seemed so into it that, you know, maybe she try to go fishing a little. Might help with the stress."
"She's definitely under a lot of stress," Marianne said, shaking her head slightly. "A lot has happened with her recently. There's a reason she's on this break."
She didn't elaborate further, even though she had more to say, about how she suspected something had happened to Mami, something mental. She just… felt different, on those rare occasions she caught a glimpse of her mind. It seemed similar to cases she'd seen before, but… she couldn't believe that. Not about Mami.
She knew her silence and body language would speak volumes, though, and Nadya nodded sharply a moment later.
"I'm not surprised. A woman like her—I said before leadership isn't my thing. No one has shoulders broad enough to bear that kind of pressure. It takes a lot to cope. Hmm."
They waited for Nadya to follow‐up, but she didn't say anything further, frowning slightly.
"Hmm?" Maki prompted.
"Oh, I have some well‐connected friends who can find some suitable matches," Nadya said. "All discreet‐like and such. I thought I'd send some queries."
"Oh Goddess," Maki said, rolling her eyes and pantomiming collapsing onto the table. "What are you, a—"
She stopped herself, clearly answering her own question. Nadya laughed.
"A meddlesome mother, yes. You forget how old I am."
She took another chug, then looked at her glass, which was nearly empty, clearly pondering whether to order more.
"They're taking a while," she said.
As if specifically to prove her wrong, Mami and Kyouko reappeared in the doorway, Kyouko shaking her head at something.
A couple of potential icebreaker jokes came to mind, but Marianne thought better of it and said nothing, allowing them to take their seats again with only a little awkwardness.
I'll have to talk to you later, Mami thought. Not now, though.
Of course, Marianne responded.
"You want to go for another round?" Mami asked, looking at Nadya.
"Another? I thought you were tired."
"I'm not tired anymore."
Nadya shook her head.
"I'm sorry, I need a break. You're insatiable."
"I'm not sure when I'll get to do this again," Mami said, in an odd tone.
"I'll do it," Kyouko said, putting her hand on the table decisively.
"…if, uh, my companion here approves," she temporized a second later.
She shared a look with Maki, publicly signaling a telepathic conversation.
"Yeah, sure," Maki said. "I understand."
Marianne shook her head as the two women walked up to the dance floor. Something was up, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
But she would know either way. If there was nothing else she had learned from Mami, there was that.
Mami had seen many night skies in her life, on many worlds, but this one felt nostalgic somehow. It was late, the planet's moon was out and the stars twinkled faintly. The clear nighttime air was relaxing to breathe, its chill bracing in her nostrils.
"I'm surprised she let you walk out here alone with me," she said, listening to Kyouko's footsteps alongside her, resonant on the cobblestones.
"Come on, she trusts me at least a little, enough to let me walk with you."
Mami chuckled, the kind of low laugh she used when she wasn't trying to give offense.
"Besides," Kyouko said. "I thought you needed it. You seemed very bothered by what Yuma had to say."
Mami closed her eyes, letting the breeze blow on her skin for a moment. Moments like these, where the mind was clear and the world calm, needed to be treasured, since in her experience it was one of the only ways to know what eternity might be like.
The purity of the remaining sensations, otherwise lost in the cacophony of daily life, helped her to focus on the just being.
She turned on her heel to face Kyouko, the long‐haired girl watching her, the empty roadway stretching into the distance behind her, silhouetted by dimly‐lit buildings and a sky full of stars.
Somewhere, a clock tower tolled.
"Not bothered, not really," Mami answered. "It's just, the things this girl said, about us needing new wormhole technology sometime soon, matched something else I'd heard before."
She pulled idly on one of her hair curls, watching how it bent and unbent in the moonlight.
"Before I took this trip, I was told I'd get a few weeks to myself, to take a vacation, before I was needed again. Since then, it's always been in the back of my mind, since it seemed to imply that once that time was up, something would happen. And it's been a few weeks."
Kyouko watched her silently, eyes shimmering with pallid light.
Mami turned away, walking forward again.
"Do you mind telling me about the last vision you had, at that Ribbon of yours? I'm sorry if it's a bit prying, I just… wonder."
She heard Kyouko's footsteps falter slightly, just a little.
"It's a bit personal, to be honest," Kyouko said.
"I'm sorry if—"
"No, don't be. I met Sayaka."
Mami stopped and turned, not bothering to hide her surprise.
"Really?" she asked.
Kyouko hid her expression.
"I won't say much else, but she gave me a taste, just a sample, of what it was like to be dead. Not dead as in buried in the ground, but transcendent. I saw infinity, eternity, but I also saw why we should treasure life."
Kyouko met her eyes, and Mami didn't see eyes of a delinquent, or an Ancient. Just a girl, one who, for once, spoke without affectation.
"And why is that?" Mami asked, following the prompt.
Kyouko held up one hand, then made a gesture as if snatching something.
"This! Time itself. There are no moments in heaven. No tomorrow, no yesterday. You will never dance, never eat, never touch. You just are. Heaven is not better than earth, only different. And the dead miss earth."
Kyouko was looking up at the sky, hand raised, face full of emotion, and then she remembered where she was.
"I should, uh, remember that for a sermon or something," she said, looking down, face brightening in infrared.
"That wasn't bad," Mami said, laughing softly.
"To think that's how it is…" she said, ducking her head.
Kyouko rubbed the back of her head.
"Actually, to be honest, my memory is a bit hazy. I just remembered I wasn't supposed to say any of that. But maybe it's alright if it's you."
She seemed to lose her energy then, shaking her head glumly.
"If only I could really live what I just preached," Kyouko said. "I've tried, you know? But the older I get, the more it feels like I'm losing it. It sucks."
Mami tilted her head, feeling a bit at a loss. She didn't really know how to answer that.
"I don't know either," she said. "I think we all have a little of that."
She turned again, indicating she wanted to keep walking. Kyouko followed a moment later.
"So are you going to join the Church or what?" Kyouko asked. "It'd be a big deal for us."
"That's exactly why I'm not joining anything," Mami said, scoffing. "I've read your doctrines. Your Goddess doesn't need worship. Doesn't want it. Which seems very reasonable to me. Can you imagine the political headache?"
Kyouko scoffed back.
"I thought you'd say that."
"I got a notification just before we left," Mami said, without breaking her pace. "They want me back at the General Staff, not right now, just soon. Tomorrow even. Something unusual is happening. So, you know, I thought I'd make the most of my remaining time here."
"I see," Kyouko said, letting out a breath.
Something made Mami stop again, turning to look at the other girl. Kyouko took Mami's hands in hers, clasping them together in a simple gesture of reassurance.
"May the Goddess watch over you."