It is a singular fact of the physical sciences, which we ignore for sanity's sake, that time has no real meaning. A mathematical arrow, pointing from cause to effect, in the direction of predictability—that's all it is. If you take the equations literally, our fates are already written, unto the end of time, unless you take a multiversal view of things.
What then, is this moment? What does it mean to inhabit a single slice of time? Is that, after all, what a soul is? And if so—can a soul change fate?
— Clarisse van Rossum, personal blog post, MSY "Theban" community blogging platform.
"It is nice to know that the universe is self‐consistent enough to handle a few small exploits, a few violations of its laws here and there, without falling apart entirely. After all, when you have all of reality to run, what's a few ontological paradoxes among friends?"
— Director Tao Shaojie, private message, 2441.
Simona del Mago was genuinely surprised to see them all at her door.
They could tell, because she made them wait before allowing her door to open, and when the door did open they could see the cleaning drones behind her still putting away the remnants of a meal.
"Well, this is unexpected," Simona said, glancing around quickly. "What's the occasion?"
Ryouko felt Simona's gaze drift towards her, and stay there.
Ryouko couldn't help but feel uncomfortable, even if she had instigated this. She had hoped it wouldn't be necessary, and they'd gone through their options. They had tried Patricia's drone idea, with Vlad's grudging approval, but had yet to find anything other than what Vlad had told them—she spent her time on the station living an almost boring existence, oscillating between eating, reading, and time on the entertainment console.
They could have waited a bit longer, but she hadn't thought it was likely to be worth anything. About the only thing they might have done differently was ask Clarisse van Rossum to join them, but she didn't think she wanted that—Clarisse had already been cagey about the topic when had tried to ask her before this meeting.
So here they were.
"We just wanted to ask you a few questions," Azrael began, since she was the most experienced. "You don't mind if we step inside?"
"Of course not," Simona said, though it was written on her face that she didn't relish the idea. "I'll have the drones set out some snacks."
They filed into the room uncertainly, Simona pretending to fuss over the presentation of her sitting room table. Eri and Elanis stayed outside flanking the door, both as a visible indication of their guard duties and as a small show of force.
Eventually they sat, and there was nothing else to stall over.
"Alright, so you don't have to tell me what this is about," Simona said, before any of them could say anything. "I've had this coming ever since I got here."
She sucked in a breath, visibly unnerved and clasping her hands. She no longer stared at Ryouko.
"Where to start… the group I work for predicted a long time ago that we would be here, working on a wormhole device. It was predicted that I needed to come here, to bring certain theoretical derivations to the lab that were necessary to understand wormhole instabilities, to prevent disaster. The success of the recent experiments was based partially on what I brought here."
There was no way to absorb information like that readily, and they just sat there blinking for a long while, occasionally making false starts at sentences.
"Group? Predicted? How?" Patricia finally managed.
"I don't know," Simona said. "Whoever I'm working for claims to work for Governance, but in a way Governance itself is unaware of. And as for how they make predictions, I have no idea, but I have seen them to be right far more often than not, and I'm not sure they weren't lying to me when they did appear to be wrong. I don't have all the answers, you see. They didn't tell me you'd be here, for example."
"Who are you?" Ryouko demanded. "Why did you come to me?"
Simona looked distinctly unhappy with her situation.
"I know what you must think of me," she said, "but not everything is a lie. I am a teenager, I am recently contracted. I am really your friend. I was… sent to watch over you, I was told you were important. I was never told much else."
"Unacceptable," Azrael said, leaning forward with an aura of menace that seemed out of sync with her stature. "You're holding back. We're going to be asking questions all day if you keep leaving out so much."
"Do you know how betrayed I feel?" Ryouko said, gritting her teeth slightly. "I trusted you. I thought you were my friend. My friends and I took you, because we wanted to take care of the lonely‐looking exchange student. I thought we were being nice."
Simona looked shocked for a moment, then torn, biting her lips.
"I don't… I didn't think it was that important," she said. "Everyone has their secrets, and it's not like I wanted to hurt you. I just wanted to be your friend."
"You were told to be my friend."
"It was more than that! I mean, at the beginning, yes, but I was given a file to read, and reading it made me think…"
Her voice trailed off there, as she was clearly struggling to continue the thought.
"What? Think what?" Ryouko half‐asked, half‐demanded.
"That you, and your friends, could be someone I could truly get to know. Ever since I was a kid I've never…"
Simona closed her eyes and clenched her lips, visibly hurting, and Ryouko couldn't help feeling a twinge of sympathy. She had been her friend, after all.
"I can't tell you everything, and I don't know everything, alright? I was a lab experiment, an early war project when things were desperate. I was raised as a normal child, but it turned out we were a test, in more ways than one. An experiment to see if magical girl contracting could be manipulated; more than that, a test of an alternate TCF implant set."
She shook her head, lost in her own narration for a moment.
"After that, we didn't have any normal childhoods, any friends. We were signed on to the cause as agents. Embedded in key locations, a conspiracy by Governance against itself, if something were to ever go terribly wrong. You'll understand that I never saw keeping a secret as anything unusual."
She had shown a flash of anger, enough that Asami, who had been about to say something, held her peace.
"You were used as children?" Patricia asked, aghast.
"Not quite," Simona said, with a voice that suggested she viewed the topic as a distraction. "Our growth was accelerated, so really it was more like we were recruited as teenagers. And it's for a good cause, supposedly."
"Were you ever going to tell me?" Ryouko asked, shaking her head. She realized how ridiculous it was that she somehow cared about that more than she cared about the contents of what she had just heard.
"I was going to tell you," Simona said, cringing. "You remember, when we were attacked by demons on that embankment?"
Ryouko looked away, making a small show of thinking about it when, really, she remembered right away. But the exact details… seemed distant now, a world away, just a backdrop to the one moment her life changed.
"Yeah," she said, returning to Simona. "You wanted to talk to me about something."
"I was going to tell you the truth!" Simona said, raising her hands in exasperation. "Not all at once, but I was. Then all of that happened, and you made a contract, and I had Tomoe Mami, one of the highest‐ranking magical girls in existence, telling me to keep a lid on it, so I wouldn't distract you, so I did."
"Hold on, Mami‐san knew about all this?" Azrael asked.
"No!" Simona said, frustrated. "Not—not this. Something else, but I got the point anyway. I kept my mouth shut until you were ready to hear it. Which was, apparently, today."
She grimaced, shaking her head ruefully.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Such is the nature of life, to have to apologize even when you didn't think you were doing anything wrong. I'm sorry for keeping secrets."
Ryouko looked at the other girl, whose black hair drooped over her eyes, and could only think about how innocuous she looked. She didn't carry the aura of an Ancient, or even the merely old. She had no aura at all. She was one of them, as adrift on the currents of the world as they were. It was hard to really be angry at that.
"I can't say I forgive you, but I will accept the apology," she said. "I don't know if that makes sense."
Simona nodded, slightly, then shrugged.
"That's better than I'd hoped," she said.
Patricia leaned forward, her hair twisting itself in a way that was almost menacing.
"If you're not keeping any secrets, then I suppose you had nothing to do with the demons that attacked Ryouko before she made a contract?"
Simona looked up, the surprise visible in her eyes.
"Of course not. Were you listening? It interrupted my plans. Are you saying it wasn't a coincidence?"
"No, it wasn't a coincidence. In fact, one of my guesses going into this meeting was that you had something to do with it."
Ryouko frowned. She had considered the notion, along with her TacComp, but she hadn't thought it very likely. Simply put, she doubted Simona would get the both of them nearly killed, with no recourse other than Mami literally passing through the area.
"What do you know about Joanne Valentin?" Ryouko asked, looking down at Simona.
"Director Valentin?" Simona asked. "Not… that much. I barely know her. She was the point of contact the MSY used to get me here, which suggests to me she's trusted with quite a bit of sensitive knowledge. It's weird, but I feel like I meet her more than I should."
"Yeah, that's my opinion too," Ryouko said, unable to keep some irony out of her voice. "But, she was your point of contact?"
Simona closed her eyes for a moment, leaning onto one arm.
"In the interests of sharing," she said. "Allow me to explain what I've been up to since I've been gone. Things will make more sense then, but only a little."
She cleared her throat rhetorically, giving the clear impression that she had practiced what she was going to say here.
"Shortly after you left, I was recalled, and I actually got to enjoy some free time," she said. "Well, as much as I could, after what happened. When I heard about what happened to you, with that squid raid, I… got a certain offer from an Incubator right afterward, and I took it."
Ryouko looked at Asami, then at the others. There was a certain question implicit in that statement, but she wasn't sure, yet, if she should ask.
She decided to let Simona continue normally.
"After that, I was given a new assignment," she said. "I was going to watch you, whenever I could. It took a while for me to be able to reach you. It didn't happen until you were in Paris. I was at that demon attack you were involved in. And no, I didn't start that one either—I was told it was suspicious."
She was one of the mystery magical girls! Clarisse thought, before Ryouko could. The ones that were firing beams, but then…
Clarisse? Ryouko thought.
Hold on, I need to think, correlate information… Keep her talking.
Ryouko didn't need to keep her talking, since she hadn't yet stopped.
"Ultimately, I am here because I was told to make a deal. We would give the scientists here certain information, and in exchange I would be allowed to travel here, to join you, Ryouko. Whatever happens, I want to be there for you. We don't mean you any harm—I don't mean you any harm. If it comes to it, I'll be loyal to you over them. I am still your friend. I…"
There was a long pause, punctuated for Ryouko only by the odd sense of Clarisse working on something in the background.
"I wished to be able to protect Shizuki Ryouko, to be able to have her understand me," Simona said finally, hiding her face. "Of course you can trust me. I don't know how to make you believe."
Ryouko could see the slight tears billowing.
She didn't know how to feel about any of this. A wish? For her?
It was touching, if true, but Ryouko could feel Asami's eyes on her side, and knew this was one more enormous complication.
She's not kidding about the deal, by the way, Clarisse thought. We just got brand new, MSY‐internal self‐destructing classified orders, to keep whatever we learn here strictly secret. I didn't even know we had things like that.
So that at least is true, Ryouko thought.
Honestly, it all struck me as too outlandish to be false. It resolves certain discrepancies I've been wondering about. But with regards to this wish, and your relationship with—
Yeah, I know. I can't let this hang.
"Simona, I…" she began. "As a personal matter. I have to let you know I am spoken for. Surely you know at this point that Asami and I are dating. I… there's no good way to say this, but if you think you're in love with me, if you want to stay with me, I have to know you'll respect that, and that right now I can't really trust you. Not until I see more."
Simona's eye twitched, and she took an obvious, deep breath.
"I know," she said. "Fate is cruel."
Asami watched Simona for a long moment, glancing at Ryouko as she did so. Apparently there was something she wanted to say.
Well, if I may, Clarisse thought. Since we seem paused here for a moment, I'd like to share some of my insights.
What is it? Ryouko acknowledged.
Nothing too groundbreaking, but I've pieced together something about Paris. The other mysterious magical girl was Shizuki Sayaka, right? It stands to reason she would have noticed Simona.
She was traveling in disguise with us, Ryouko thought.
Yes, but you left her behind during the demon hunt, and you didn't see her again until the museum. That's when Kana's representative came to call off the deal, in light of 'new information'.
And that's when I was told about the brain thing, Ryouko thought, and that the whole thing was just a ruse to get a brain scan.
Yes, Clarisse thought. The whole thing fits a pattern where Sayaka, Kana, and Simona are involved somehow. They either met Simona there, or they were involved from the start.
I don't think they were lying to me in Paris though, about what they knew, Ryouko thought.
Me neither, Clarisse thought. You should ask.
"I have to ask," Asami said, before Ryouko could decide to do anything. "You mentioned that you were a lab experiment from early in the war. Does that mean you're, well, artificial?"
"Pretty much," Simona said, with a trace of annoyance. "At least in the way you mean it. I don't think of it that way, though."
"Do you have any idea about the modifications that were done to me, then?" Ryouko asked, leaning forward to involve herself. "I'm assuming you know about those."
Simona seemed to think about the question for a moment.
"I heard about them," Simona said, shaking her head, "but I don't know any more than what I've been told, which I don't think is any more than what you've been told. Some sort of brain region with anomalous genetic coding and no other implants?"
"That's right," Patricia verified.
"The current theory is that the attack in Paris was to stop Ryouko‐chan from getting a detailed brain scan," Simona said. "Not that it was very effective, mind you, thanks to me."
She nodded and smiled slightly, satisfied with herself, at least on this one matter.
"But no, I don't know what's going on there," she said, focusing herself. "It bothers me too, in fact."
"And you got that from Shizuki Sayaka, right?" Ryouko said. "Or someone connected to her?"
Simona looked surprised for just a moment, before managing to conceal it.
"Not from her, not directly, though she did contact me in Paris, you're right. No, I learned it from the group I work for."
"If so, and if you or your organization weren't involved in her modifications, then how do you know?" Azrael asked sharply, the back of her shirt rising slightly. "That's a bit suspicious, if you don't mind me saying."
Simona made a pained expression.
"This is going to sound evasive, but I don't really know. I've been told we have supporters high up who feed us information. But it's also true that I've never tried to find out. It's one of those things where the less you know, the less you can tell people if you ever get in an awkward situation."
"And you trust them?" Azrael asked, with a hint of menace.
"They raised me, or at least their agents did, and my parents will be getting quite an interrogation soon enough about all this. Maybe I'm a fool, but I've never killed anyone, or done anything I saw as malicious. That's all I can really say. I'd be lying if I said I've never wondered why so much was being kept secret from me."
There was a long quiet, during which Azrael stared at Simona as if intending to bore a hole into her skull with her eyes. It didn't take any special insight to know that Azrael was trying to read Simona's mind, or perhaps talk with her.
Patricia leaned forward and grabbed one of the pastries Simona had laid out earlier as snacks, heretofore untouched. She nibbled it nervously, and Ryouko decided she was better off just abstaining.
"Just what is your power?" Azrael asked. "Telepathy?"
Simona shook her head.
"No, I just got trained after I made the contract. My actual skill is power amplification. Whatever you got, I make it much stronger. Purely support."
"Soul‐based, then," Azrael said, turning it into almost an insult. "Quite close to telepathy."
"Yeah, it made things easier," Simona said, shrugging. "If you don't mind, I'd really rather not show you everything. Would you?"
"If you really are as sincere as you say you are, I hope you will be able to share the whole truth one day," Azrael said. "And I'm sure you understand you won't be trusted until you do."
Azrael gave Ryouko a look.
We need to talk privately, at least a little.
Ryouko thought for only a moment before sending back agreement.
"There's not much more I can say," Simona said, with a pained expression. "I know nothing I can say will get me believed here. Only my actions here matter."
Well if she's gaslighting me, she's doing a pretty good job of it, Azrael thought, carefully avoiding showing any change in her expression. She has startlingly good telepathic defenses, but I was still able to see a bit more than she wanted me to see, I think. Still, I didn't get the sense she was lying. Just that she was leaving things out.
That's hardly surprising, Ryouko thought, following Azrael's example by returning the thought in accelerated fashion.
Yeah, Azrael thought.
I planted another drone here, Patricia thought. With any luck, she won't notice it. I need reliable genetic samples.
Clever, Azrael thought.
Patricia couldn't avoid showing a flash of pleasure at earning the older woman's praise. Thankfully, Simona wasn't looking at her.
"Just put yourself in my shoes for a minute," Simona said. "I've barely lived any of my life outside of some kind of assignment. I know it's not rational, but Ryouko is all that matters to me, okay? I decided I might as well commit to that, for whatever it's worth. I have nothing else to hold on to, really."
Ryouko felt that hit a chord inside her unexpectedly, enough that she turned her face away. She knew what it was like to have only one island of certainty in a tumultuous world.
What now? Azrael asked.
I don't know, Ryouko thought. But I don't think she's a threat to us. I don't think there's much more we can do without having you try to pry her open, and I don't know that Vlad would tolerate that, or that I would want you to do that. She… was my friend, after all. That's something. Let's see what she chooses to do after this.
That seems reasonable, Azrael thought. Though I'd be worried about what we're not seeing.
"Let's talk again later," Ryouko said, looking Simona in the eye. "I don't know what you want but… I don't think you want to just sit here in the background. Let's see what happens."
"I know I'll have the chance," Simona said, eyes focused. "I was told you would be sent somewhere soon, and I would be able to go too."
Ryouko felt herself making a sour expression, but restrained herself.
"They really can tell the future?" she asked, even as Azrael made an annoyed noise.
"I have no idea. They've been wrong before," Simona said. "Or lying. But I hope not. Before you ask, I'd like to repeat that I don't know how it's done."
"I thought precognitives were supposed to be extinct," Patricia said, leaning back in her chair.
"And rogue colonies like mine weren't supposed to exist," Azrael said.
Ryouko shook her head in dismay.
"I believe you," she said. "But I'm not sure I like having my future foretold."
"I've never felt otherwise," Simona said, smiling slightly. "We have something in common, then."
"Yes, we do."
With that, Ryouko got up, turned, and walked out of the room, feeling Simona's gaze on her back. She had looked crestfallen, hopeful, or maybe some mixture of the two.
The signs were obvious, she thought. Something was waiting for them, like an iceberg looming in the distance. Maybe this time, she would be ready.
"This is the prototype super long‐range gravimetric scanner," Vlad explained, gesturing at a bulky assemblage set into the wall. A haphazard amalgamation of freshly manufactured parts full of odd angles and obviously extemporized attachments, it certainly looked like a prototype.
Ryouko and Asami nodded politely, while Director Tao frowned at a diagram visible only to him.
"This one is my own work, inspired by harnessing some of the emissions of our previous experiments. It's the kind of thing I've always wanted to build, but I've never quite had a strong enough source."
He checked to make sure they were still following. They nodded politely again.
"I'll cut to the chase," he said. "I've been running this device on the side. That's how I found this."
He held out his hand, a multicolored orb appearing above it, easily recognizable as a gravity diagram.
"This appears to be a major Cephalopodan facility of some sort, based on both our data and some recent surveys by the Military. Command is very interested in knowing what it is—I'd like to know what it is. But I can't gather information that detailed without a bit more… active participation. That's where you come in."
"This is where I'm supposed to say I don't like the sound of that," Asami said, her voice suggesting she was only half‐joking.
"Yes," Vlad agreed, breezily acknowledging the comment. "But it's not dangerous; I just need you two to do what you usually do, with a twist."
Asami glanced at Ryouko, who shuffled in place for a moment, before shrugging.
"Only that you pay attention to the readout," Vlad said. "Previously, it was always an incidental measurement while you were trying to do something else, but I have a suspicion that with some active feedback you might be able to do better than that. I'll make sure you can see it while you work."
"What will we be looking for?"
"Just better resolution, stronger signal, that kind of thing," Vlad said. "We're still guessing at what the right things are to show. It doesn't have to work the first time."
"A novel approach," Tao commented, arching an eyebrow. "Letting them adjust their methods rather adjusting the instrumentation."
"Well, we can recalibrate everything else too," Vlad said. "But it seems silly to focus on only that while neglecting the power source."
He looked at Asami with a meaningful—but probably unnecessary—look.
"Is it strictly necessary that I be here?" Ryouko asked. "Usually I'm here to attempt final wormhole formation, but not much else. It sounds like we're not even doing that step?"
"Perhaps not," Vlad said, tilting his head slightly. "But it probably wouldn't hurt, and I suspect the two of you would prefer to be together."
Something about the way Vlad said it made her blush and want to hide her face, to Asami's amusement.
"Let's just do this then," Asami said, when she was done smiling.
The two scientists departed for the observation floor, striking up a discussion about the design of very long‐range gravimetric sensors.
"Yes, I'd definitely prefer to be together," Asami said, as Ryouko turned toward the small room they used as a changing room. "But alas, someone decided to summon us for a special experiment right when we were trying to head back to our rooms. I'm a bit disappointed, myself."
Ryouko smiled, remembering how annoyed Asami had looked at the interruption, then stepped into the room where her suit was stored, Asami following after her.
The door slid shut a moment later with a quiet whoosh.
She started to pull off her blouse, which had already unbuttoned itself, but paused when she noticed Asami watching her. It wasn't hard to track where her eyes were looking.
Tell her to behave, Clarisse thought, with a humorous undertone that made it clear she was joking.
Ryouko settled for rolling her eyes instead, turning away. It wasn't like there was that much to see, even if Asami was good at making her feel like she was hiding something really nice.
Ryouko glanced over, seeing that Asami was starting to change as well, and finished pulling off her blouse. It was inconvenient, not being able to wear too much clothing in the vacuum suit, but she could understand that that would have been a pointless convenience.
Cued by a ping from Clarisse, she came out of her train of thought and saw Asami looking again. Since the other girl wasn't fully dressed either, she also found her own eyes wandering downward…
"Come on," Ryouko said, making a gesture with one hand. "I'm flattered by the attention, but now really isn't the time. What's with you today, anyway? It's not like we haven't changed in front of each other before."
She turned decisively away again, focusing on taking pieces of the vacuum suit and bending over to apply them to her legs. Each modular piece fit tightly into place, molding around her with a soft sucking noise.
Asami grabbed her by the arm and she turned, surprised.
Asami used that moment to kiss her full on the lips, and before she knew it she felt herself pulled in, leaning backwards against the wall to provide an angle. She felt Asami's hand on her lower back, moving adventurously.
"Okay, really," she said, pulling back her head and grabbing the hand. "Not now, obviously."
"Relax, I'm not going to scandalize poor Director Tao," Asami said, stepping back. "I just wanted to reassure myself that you're still mine."
Her eyes didn't look lustful, not exactly. They were more… possessive.
Ryouko shook her head wearily.
"Not everything is about sex, you know," she said. "There's more to a relationship than that. Haven't you been reading the guides?"
It was Asami's turn to roll her eyes.
"Yes, but they're not really designed for our situation, are they? There's nothing to do on this space station, and I'm feeling nervous, with Del Mago around."
The last sentence was said casually… too casually.
"I know it bothers you that she's here," Ryouko said, attaching the torso section of her suit. "But you know I have no interest in her. Not in that way."
"Yes," Asami said. "But it's irrational, you know? I just feel like, sometimes, there's only one thing we ever do together, and you're not even that into it."
Ryouko paused for a moment, watching part of the suit find its place around her arm.
"Well, come to think of it, even on Eurydome we were only ever busy with the usual stuff. Clarisse wants me to point out that we've technically never even been on a date night, not really."
"Watching out for us as always," she said, smiling awkwardly. "No, we haven't. But how are we ever going to do that here?"
"Well, there's always that flying dance thing Azrael wanted to do," Ryouko commented. "And VR things in general. We've been having some fun with that."
Ryouko looked away for a moment, using it as an excuse to think. There really weren't many good ways to go on dates here outside of VR. VR was fine, but it just seemed… proper to do it in real life, to go out together somewhere. And, well, while she was busy making decisions about Simona, why not make decisions about Asami?
"The next time we're off this station let's book something," Ryouko said, leaning forward, letting Asami take a look at her still‐uncovered shoulder area. "I'm sure Sakura‐san can recommend something."
Asami blinked rapidly.
"Alright," she said. "It'd have to be something we can both enjoy. I don't want to feel like you're doing it just for me."
"Even if I did, it wouldn't be that bad," Ryouko said.
Asami turned away, looking at the doorway as she put together the last pieces of her suit.
"Don't rush the experiment," Ryouko advised, as Asami's gloves wrapped themselves around her hands. "If we manage to get it done right away, we'll have more free time to ourselves later. That would be worth it."
Asami made an odd expression, hidden briefly by the helmet passing over her face, her hair moving itself out of the way.
"You're getting better at this," she said over the radio, shaking her helmeted head ponderously. "It makes me happy."
"Let's just go," Ryouko said, through her own radio.
The procedure afterward was familiar enough to be routine: walk out the door, turn right, step into the brightly labeled airlock, then wait briefly while the air was pumped out of the room.
As Ryouko stepped out of the airlock, watching Asami move into position near the center of the testing area—both horizontally and vertically—she realized how relaxing it was to just be able to float near a wall and watch. Nothing was expected of her here.
No, not quite nothing.
Alright, Asami‐chan, you can do this, she thought. You've got the focus.
Wait, Asami‐chan? her girlfriend thought. You never call me that.
I thought I'd lighten the mood.
Geez, I… are you trying to cheer for me?
Ryouko couldn't help but smile, a little.
Well, yeah. That's what I'm supposed to do. That's what Clarisse says to do.
Clarisse also says to stop claiming she was the source of the idea, Clarisse thought sourly. Would it kill you to acknowledge you tried?
I'm just embarrassed, you know, Ryouko thought.
Ryouko wasn't sure how Clarisse managed to convey the sense of rolled eyeballs with an emotion.
"I—well, thank you," Asami said out loud, obviously flustered.
"We're, uh, going to start the procedure soon," Vlad said over their suit radio. "Please get ready."
Asami hesitated a beat before getting into her preferred stance, raising her hands a little more ostentatiously than usual. Ryouko started to worry that maybe she had distracted her.
There are married couples who are around each other less than you two are, Clarisse complained. And you're still acting like a flustered teenager.
I am a flustered teenager.
And I'm less than one!
You know that doesn't count!
Ryouko snapped out of her argument, feeling the world around her shifting. While she didn't have the innate sense for gravity that Asami did, she had gotten better at noticing what her soul gem was telling her, and right now it was telling her there was something big, and close.
There was no need to speculate this time on what it was. The distortion forming in front of Asami, where the world curved inward towards a circle of perfect black, was plainly visible, the graphical overlay inside her eyes an unnecessary extra.
At the beginning it had taken Asami half an hour to get this far. Now, only minutes.
A new item flickered into her world, a multicolored sphere that appeared to float in space next to her. This was the representation of the distant facility that Vlad had promised.
"We need to try to boost the signal here, right?" Asami asked. "Get it to purple?"
"As a first step, yes," Vlad said. "But it's not just that. There's also all that swirling nearby, which I believe is a detection artifact, not real signal. If you manage to get rid of that, it'd really help analysis."
"I will try," Asami said.
Ryouko watched silently as the vortex near Asami calmed, and as she experimented with forms of manipulation other than the wormhole procedure, probing to see what made the device work better. It seemed like painfully slow trial and error initially, but then, just as Clarisse was starting to pencil a couple more experiments onto her calendar, the orb turned a bright and angry purple, garish to look at.
"Impressive breakthrough," Vlad commented.
"Yes," Asami acknowledged. "The truth is, it feels odd to me, like I understand this detector somehow. It shouldn't be this easy."
"It could just be something that's natural to you," Ryouko said, recalling some of what she had read on power development.
"Maybe, but right now it almost feels like I can sense it… myself…"
She stopped talking then, stepping closer to the vortex and leaning in, enough that Ryouko started to feel slightly nervous about her getting too close.
But Ryouko kept quiet, letting Asami focus. The swirling around the orb seemed to fade slightly, then grow stronger again. Whatever it was, Asami was struggling with it.
"I don't think it's an artifact at all," she said. "I can feel it oscillating. It's artificial, repeated… they're reflecting the rotation of the pulsar somehow, making it hard to see what's going on."
"It's a concealment device?" Vlad said. "A noise generator? For what?"
"For exactly this," Asami said. "Long‐range sensor probes."
"We've never previously attempted anything like this," Tao said.
"Would you bet on that, if you were them?" Ryouko said, speaking on Clarisse's behalf. "I wouldn't."
Asami made an unhappy noise, clearly frustrated.
"If they're going to all this trouble, then it's clearly important, whatever it is," Vlad said. "They're countering a sensor methodology we don't even have yet."
"You said it was a reflection of the rotation of the pulsar," Tao said. "What did you mean precisely?"
"It feels like smaller versions of something big, rotating really fast," Asami said. "Copied over and over, like reflecting echoes."
"Could we filter that?" Tao asked. "A repeating pattern, echoed over and over…"
"Not just that," Asami said. "There's something else on top of it. Some kind of manipulation."
"I can try," Vlad said. "I've already tried, on the previous data, but that wasn't as detailed, and I didn't have this hint to work with. There's so much to account for, frame‐dragging…"
His voice trailed off, as Asami's had earlier, doing his own form of thinking.
The line was silent again, and Ryouko heard only the quiet sound of her own breathing inside the helmet, as Asami moved her hands over the distortion, looking for all the world like a diviner consulting a crystal ball. The alien facility held its mysteries tight as ever, however, a swirling purple sphere twisting this way and that. It was really more of a shell, she supposed.
"I might have something," Vlad said finally. "I grabbed a few algorithms off the research boards and stitched something together. I don't have enough local processing power to do this in real‐time, so I requested time on a Governance computing cluster. They gave me the allocation. It won't be good for our secrecy to beam that much data through IIC—I suppose the lab will have to shift orbits again. Anyway, give me a second while I get this set up…"
It took a few seconds, but the orb they were watching began to finally shift. The constant motion around the edges seemed to calm, then slow, and the orb itself started to fade at points, not receding into the greens and reds of low signal, but simply disappearing where there was nothing to see.
"I see," Asami said. "So that's how that works."
The orb shrunk abruptly, until it was no more than one‐tenth its original size, and other objects appeared, still dyed with the false color of sensor strength. They looked like beads forming a spherical mesh, surrounding a small sphere in the middle. No, a mesh of space stations surrounding a pulsar.
"Oh excuse me, let me change the readout," Vlad said.
The incessant purple vanished, replaced by a more artistic‐looking rendition of the facilities, now accompanied with labels appended by Vlad. Pulsar, station…
"Impressive algorithm," Tao commented.
"No, it's not," Vlad said. "It wasn't me. She—Miss Nakihara saw what it was doing, and followed up herself. The algorithm is barely doing anything now."
Ryouko turned her gaze from the orb back to Asami, who was still intently emplaced at her floating station. She wasn't sure how to put it. She was… impressed, perhaps?
"It isn't just a concealment network," Asami said. "That's just a useful side effect. They're using the pulsar's gravity for something. You see these specks flying in and out of the stations? They're ships, and there's a lot of them."
Ryouko looked as Asami directed, and saw the ships she was talking about. A constant stream of them flowed in and out, but so slowly it could only barely be called 'flowing'.
"They're not using their FTL engines," Asami said. "Maybe it's too risky, or it disturbs what the station is doing. But these ships are cruiser‐class. They're carrying…"
Asami paused again, leaving Ryouko with little to do but stare at the ships in the display. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but they seemed to be growing larger and more detailed.
"They're carrying fragments of the space‐time from around the star," Asami said, finally.
"What? Carrying fragments of space‐time?" Vlad echoed. "Forgive the cliché, but that's not possible."
"Not very possible," Tao said, chidingly. "The containment unit for such a thing would be nearly impossible to build, and it would take an exorbitant amount of energy to keep it from reintegrating with surrounding space. There's been a couple of thought experiments on the matter, but nothing serious."
"Just making something like that, even temporarily, would require nearly completely severing an entire island of particle interactions from everything around it. Severing every entanglement interaction. Only a black hole would ever do that naturally."
"I'm sure," Asami said, with more than a hint of annoyance. "It's difficult to explain, but I can just tell. This kind of thing I understand intuitively. I have to. It's my own power. Just look at the data yourself."
"I am," Vlad said. "It is definitely consistent with your theory. But it doesn't answer why they would do something like this. And in such quantity."
"The distance relations that govern our ordinary space‐time are an emergent property of its underlying structure," Tao said. "To them, distance is not a real thing, and time is only the direction of more uncertainty. A region of space‐time that was somehow torn away from everything else would naturally want to return home. But home can be anywhere."
"What are you saying?" Vlad asked.
"I'm not sure, it's just thinking out loud," Tao said.
"Then let's gather as much data as we can, first," Vlad said.
"I think maybe it's time for a break?" Tao suggested, a trace of worry in his voice. "This surely has to be a lot of strain on her."
"I'm not sure we can get everything back to this state," Vlad said. "This hasn't exactly been an easy procedure."
Ryouko stirred, realizing with a startled guilt that she had been forgetting to check Asami's soul gem meter, so wrapped up had she been in watching the work.
It was about one‐third drained. Nothing unmanageable, but more than she would have normally been comfortable with in non‐combat use.
"Yeah, let's take a break," Ryouko said, when Asami didn't respond right away. "Assuming you can make this work again?"
It took Asami a moment to realize she was being addressed.
"Oh, yes, yeah, I think I know what's going on now with this interference," Asami said. "I guess a break wouldn't hurt."
Her voice was distracted.
"Let's regroup here in a couple of hours then," Vlad said. "That will also give us some time to look through the data and do some more analyses. I'd have you know this is strategically valuable work—I've gotten a number of inquiries about this from higher up, and it will be satisfying to be able to give some kind of answer. Field Marshal Tomoe is particularly interested."
The facility readout in Ryouko's vision disappeared, and Asami floated away from the anomaly in the center of the chamber. The anomaly itself began to fade, and Ryouko felt the pull of the machinery fade as well as they began to slowly settle back toward the ground.
Asami walked over to grab her hand. Perhaps it was her imagination, but Asami seemed to lean on her, just a little. Had it really been that bad?
Are you alright? she asked.
I'm fine. I just wanted to touch you, that's all.
They stood in the airlock for a while, watching the atmosphere readout inside their helmets.
It feels weird, Asami thought finally, unprompted. I'm used to not really being the center of attention, but right now it's all about me. It feels like I'm doing something, right? It's new to me. I can see why you like it, even if it scares me a little.
Ryouko nodded, her helmet shifting slightly. She didn't have anything in particular to say.
The thing is, something really bothered me about those ships, Asami thought. I feel like I should know what they're doing, but it's just not coming to me right now. It's so close, like my fingers almost grazed it, but so far at the same time.
Ryouko stepped out of the airlock, thinking to herself that she had never seen Asami like this before.
Well, you'll get another chance. Let's just recharge your gem and head back to our room. After that, we'll have plenty of time to have a little fun.
Yeah, Asami thought noncommittally.
Or plan our date? Ryouko added, trying to be teasing.
Even better, Asami managed, and Ryouko could feel satisfied with a light touch of emotional warmth.
Asami still seemed distracted while they were changing; this time, her eyes weren't focused on Ryouko's body, but rather past it, as if she were looking at something else entirely. It was a bit unsettling, to be honest.
It was only when they were in the corridor walking back, passing Patricia in the hallway, that Asami grabbed Ryouko abruptly by the upper arm.
"I have it," she said. "I know what they're doing."
"It powers the alien blink technology," Director Volokhov said. "It's the solution to the paradox of the Paradox Engine, and the secret ingredient inside their Blink Cannons."
He paused rhetorically, taking a moment to adjust his sweater, one of the original Volokhov's most well‐known fashion accessories.
"I would not normally be very certain of this, but Nakihara Asami says she is almost one hundred percent sure, and it is consistent with some of the theoretical guesses Director Tao and I have been making. The new simulations show that it is at least possible to 'mine' contained space‐time fragments and use them for teleportation. Extremely difficult, but since when has that ever stopped them?"
Volokhov stopped there, clasping his hands politely on top of the meeting table and awaiting feedback.
Mami glanced at Feodorovich and Anand, the other two members of this meeting. Their faces were composed, but serious. The General Staff had formed a working subcommittee for this topic, and its importance had just escalated drastically.
"How much trust do you place in Nakihara's judgment?" Mami asked, pouring herself some virtual tea. "What would your certainty be without her input?"
"Only about twenty percent," Volokhov said. "There are too many unknowns here. However, the historical record for predictions made by magical girls in a context directly relevant to their specialization is quite good, especially when they are unable to articulate a clear logical reason. You can check the records for the statistics."
He materialized a teacup and began pouring out some tea for himself, surprising Mami. Most AIs made a point of never appearing to consume human food, to make sure they could never be confused for human.
Mami sipped at her tea, considering. Truthfully, she hadn't needed Volokhov to tell her that, nor did she need to check the numbers. She knew quite well. But still, to have that kind of faith in one girl…
"With respect, Mami, wouldn't this kind of thing be your specialty?" Feodorovich asked, holding a mug of coffee. "Perhaps you could talk to her?"
"I probably will," Mami said. "She's under my command at the moment, after all."
"I will be happy to run more experiments and simulations," Volokhov said. "In fact, that effort is already underway."
Mami nodded wordlessly, making a note to Machina to consider Asami for a promotion. It only seemed appropriate, given the magnitude of what had been going on at Adept Blue in recent weeks.
"For now, let us assume that she's right," she said. "What are the consequences? Do we do anything?"
"We needed something that could buy us time, kneecap their operations," Anand said. "A logistics hub like this is perfect, if we have any way of doing anything to it, and assuming this is the only one of its kind in the area."
She looked at Volokhov, the implicit question obvious.
"As far as we know, it is the only one remotely near the Euphratic sector," he said. "Indeed, we haven't even found a second one yet. It is possible there are no others near Governance space, as I am personally doubtful that we could miss them—though we are still looking. And there's a plausible reason why this is the only one: the magnitude of the infrastructure and space‐time manipulation involved in its construction strains imagination. Even the shielding required to withstand the pulsar's tidal forces at that proximity is difficult to believe."
"It's still fairly deep in Ceph space," Feodorovich said, "and this is no mere orbital facility. This is a full constellation of facilities, with unknown capabilities and apparently ridiculous shielding. It would be a bit absurd to even consider an attack, were the stakes not so high."
"Well, that's one thing we've been thinking about," Volokhov said, rubbing his cheek. "As amateurs to military affairs, you understand. The aliens went to considerable effort to conceal the true nature of their operation from us, in a sensor modality we didn't even have until now. They certainly seem concerned."
"It could just be reasonable paranoia," Anand said, waving her hand. "They have a sense of our technology level, and probably good guesses as to where we're likely to develop in the near future. It was a reasonable supposition, especially given the trump cards we've used to surprise them in the past."
"Just a thought," Volokhov said.
"I'll have MilAdvise run some simulations," Feodorovich said, "but my guess is that it would be very difficult to run a conventional fleet operation against these… pulsar mines. The fleet simply isn't built for deep incursions of this magnitude, and the aliens aren't sleeping on the job this time. We'd need some novel angle."
"Do we want to bring this to the full Staff?" Anand asked. "Even if we can't perform a strike, any new insight into the Ceph's blink technology should merit a thorough review of fleet doctrine."
Mami put her hands on the table, closing her eyes for a moment.
"Eventually," she said. "But not yet. Let's do a bit more investigation, I think."
Anand frowned, just a little, something she probably didn't even expect Mami to notice.
"Alright, I suppose we can afford that," she said.
Mami knew what Anand was worried about, but there was something the other woman didn't know.
She looked away for a moment, pretending to check an internal data stream.
There was a bigger picture she still needed to fill in. A bigger picture in which Homura and Kyouko's divine being had accurately foretold a break in Cephalopod activity, and had asked her to visit again, when her vacation was over.
She was already on her way back down to Earth, and when she got there, there were some questions she wanted to ask. About the future, the nature of the war, what had happened to Homura, the meaning of life… all the things one might want to ask an alleged deity. She doubted she would get many answers, but she wasn't going to let… her wriggle out so easily.
More practically, she had a sense that having a hotline to the divine was a useful thing for the Chair of the General Staff.
"I think the meeting is adjourned," she said. "I'll see you next time."
As the simulation dissolved around her, she absently rubbed the soul gem on her finger.
Once, when she was young, Mami had wanted nothing more from the world than to keep her life. She even had the wish and soul gem to prove it.
She had regretted it immediately. Not the survival, of course, but that she hadn't wished for a bit more. The survival of her parents, perhaps?
Many girls would have lost themselves then and there, but it was Kyubey, of all things, who had talked her through it. Reminded her that life was still worth living, that she was a hero, that if nothing else the grief cubes she collected staved off universal heat death.
Her lips always twitched upward, thinking of that. She knew now that the Incubators didn't really care, that in their eyes it was all a big accounting game, where more magical girls alive meant more grief cube collection. If she was honest, she had even known back then. But it still felt good knowing that someone cared, sort of. Cared enough to whisper misshapen facsimiles of human comfort in her ear.
How Homura had scoffed when she shared that story! She claimed, with her typical unnerving certainty, that Mami would have been fine anyway, at least for a while.
In a way, life had been simpler then. She'd had a purpose, a relatively simple one, and once she had filled in the missing slots in her heart, there really wasn't much else to it.
Things were different now.
She looked upward, shading her eyes against the scant light filtering through the stained glass of Kyouko's church. The stylized imagery, which had struck her as overbearing the first time, seemed a bit more relevant now, if still a bit abstract. It was one thing to think about life in terms of despair and hope, as magical girls often had to, but what she had to deal with was often far, far away from emotions like that.
At her request, Kyouko and some others had again cleared the hall and snuck her in—whatever she or they thought about her consultations here, she couldn't let word leak about her being here, at least not in any verifiable way. Still, if she was here too long and too frequently, the secret would be impossible to keep. There were too many curious magical girls who were capable of spying.
She patted the head of her favorite Incubator, who had decided to imitate falling asleep on her shoulder. It did cute gestures like that to lower the guards of the humans around it, similar to why Yuma kept a child‐like body. Even if everyone knew what was going on, it still kind of worked.
With a sigh, she made her way up to the Ribbon. She was here because she had been asked to come back, and because it didn't seem wise to refuse, but in truth, she was here because she wanted to be back. It wasn't just about the prospect of clear answers or a view of the future, so exciting to a military strategist. She had the same questions she supposed any human might, and despite herself and her skepticism, she couldn't avoid feeling a longing to know.
As she neared the Ribbon and its pedestal, Kyubey jumped off her shoulder, landing on the soft red carpet below.
I suppose it surprises you to see me here, Mami thought, looking down at the creature.
Not really, Kyubey thought. This artifact possesses a fascinating allure to magical girls, particularly those involved in key events. I thought it highly likely you would be drawn here eventually.
You said once recently that Kyouko and Homura might be right, Mami thought. I suppose this is why.
It's fairly weak evidence, but it is evidence, of a sort, Kyubey thought. More interestingly, those girls who come here and appear to have an experience show anomalous behavior afterward.
Always so cagey. Have you tried examining the Ribbon yourself? It is sealed, of course, but for one such as you it can't be that hard.
Kyubey walked in a small circle on the floor.
That Ribbon is protected by more than just your technology. It is heavily guarded by the magic of the magical girls in this religious organization. It would be difficult.
Difficult, but not impossible. Have you tried? Mami thought, refusing to let it escape the chain of questioning.
It was considered, Kyubey thought. But I did not ultimately make the attempt.
That was an answer, but now that she had it, she was no longer sure where she had been going with it.
Proceed with your ritual, Mami, Kyubey thought. I will be watching.
It vanished for a moment, reappearing a second later atop the casing of the Ribbon itself, in the curled‐up sleeping posture of a cat.
Mami shook her head at the Incubator's audacity—and at its use of her personal name—then ducked her head and closed her eyes, refusing to strike a prayer pose.
She had expected to wait a little, but a gust of wind blew across her face, startling her enough to open her eyes again immediately.
She was no longer in Kyouko's church, of course.
She let out a breath in the chilly air, watching the air fog in front of her. She recognized this place. There could be no mistaking the circular colonnade, the imposing statuary, or the marble floor, black as night.
She shook her head, closing her eyes for a moment against the sight. This was the atrium of the Rules Committee, the actual, physical Rules Committee, the symbolic seat of MSY legislative power.
It had been built at her direction at the height of the pre‐Unification Wars era, when no one would have batted an eyelash at such an ostentatious hyperclass palace, even on top of a skyscraper in Mitakihara City. The statues represented famous and powerful magical girls throughout history, the floor was meant to resemble the black night, and the columns… well, the columns were just there to lend an air of gravitas to the whole affair.
This was different, though. The floor here glimmered with stars, marble black as the depths of space. The statues, the originals of which were adorned with brilliant color, were instead faded, the paint peeling off in places, but were somehow more vibrant, in a way that made it impossible to shake the impression that they were watching, and might start moving at any moment.
They were also covered in vines, thorny and dense, and she was pretty sure they depicted the wrong girls. Wasn't that Kyouko, with the spear…?
She stepped forward, narrowing her eyes to take a more careful look. Yes, that was, in fact, Kyouko, and beside her Homura, followed by Mami herself.
"This is pretty," a child‐like voice said next to her.
Mami turned and looked down, staring for a moment at the now familiar child with pigtails and a starry‐eyed look.
"Oh, Machina," she said, heart filling with an indefinable warmth whose source she could not place. "I'm sorry I keep forgetting about you."
She bent over, picking up the girl in her arms, the weight familiar from days long past, when she used to pick up Yuma—who had been too heavy for it, really, but one of the perks of being a magical girl was not having to worry about things like that.
She looked upward, feeling again the cold breeze on her face. The original Gallery of the Law was indoors, of course, and did not have a ceiling that opened up to an eternal night sky, a perfect mirror of the floor below. She enjoyed the view, though.
"I thought I'd spruce things up a little more this time around," a voice said, in familiar old Japanese. "Something a bit more befitting."
This time, the entity that appeared in front of her was very visibly magical, a woman with a white dress, with an aura that seemed to shout divinity at the back of Mami's mind. Her pink hair floated eerily above the floor, and rather than end, seemed to fade away, disappearing somewhere else entirely. And her face… Mami could not bring herself to look at it.
"Dropping the cute kouhai act?" Mami asked. "In retrospect, I found it a little manipulative. Of course you would know how to push my buttons."
"I don't blame you for being suspicious," the woman said. "But that was no act. Everything I said there was true. I have many guises. That was one of them, this is another. Not so much alternate faces as alternate points in time. Easy to access in a place such as this."
Mami frowned a little, shifting her arms as Machina turned to get a better look.
"I suppose you're doing me a service, with this kind of candor," Mami said. "I came here wanting answers, so you make a show of being a bit honest. But you won't tell me everything."
She didn't make the last part a question.
The being in front of her raised a gloved hand to her mouth and laughed, a melodious and cheerful sound with unsettling undercurrents, as if the air around her was laughing too.
Mami shook her head, amused too. What had she been expecting, trying to catch a possibly divine being off‐guard? She was letting her age get to her head.
"Of course not," the woman said, turning away and stepping through the door that led into the main chamber. "How could anyone tell you everything?"
Machina squirmed, signaling she wanted to be dropped, and Mami obliged, watching the girl follow the woman into the other room.
"We all wear guises, Mami‐san," the woman said, turning to pat the girl on the head. "Clarisse‐chan, Shizuki Ryouko's Tactical Computer, chooses to portray herself as no younger than her host, but Machina‐chan chooses otherwise."
"Shizuki‐san is young," Machina said, voice affectless, as if in a trance. "She needed someone who seemed more mature, to help carry her through hard times. Mami did not need that help—indeed, probably the opposite. We were programmed to be what our hosts needed us to be. But it's hard to keep that from affecting how we see ourselves. Not when we were so young."
The woman picked up Machina herself, stepping out of Mami's sight with long strides that seemed not to touch the floor.
"Far more important than the face you present to the world is the face you present to yourself," she said. "It defines who you are, it defines how you see your life, it defines how happy you are."
She left a short pause there for Mami to think, then stretched a hand out into the doorway to gesture her forward.
"Come on in, then. I don't bite."
Mami stood still for a moment, then stepped forward slowly, shaking her head at herself. The threshold scared her, like she was a student stepping into the principal's office, and it bothered her, that she should be so unnerved. She wanted to believe that her mind was being magically manipulated, that this was the parlor trick of a being working a kind of therapy on her, but she couldn't really be sure of that.
The plenary chamber of the Rules Committee was, of course, primarily a ceremonial structure. The size of a large auditorium, it had difficulty seating even the key members of every political faction, much less the plethora of Rules Committee members. Even at the time of construction, it had been meant only as a place for key speeches, a place for Executives or the leadership to symbolically address the entire body, waiting just behind the curtain of the virtual world.
As such, it was designed for appearance rather than function, the ceiling painted with key moments in MSY history, the walls carved with depictions of various magical girls, all in the middle of making a wish, but all looking directly at the podium.
The intent was to fill the speaker with the sense that she had responsibility, a quite deliberate effect that Mami herself had signed off on. She regretted it later, since she had come to find it rather unnerving.
"That's what makes you different from the others," the woman said. "It always felt real to you. I'm not saying the others don't care, but they never felt it as much. Homura‐chan, Yuma‐chan, even Kyouko‐chan, can sit down and turn human lives into statistics, and live with themselves in the end. But not you."
Mami turned and looked at the woman, now seated next to Machina on one of the spectator's benches. They had a plate of cookies next to them, which Machina seemed to be industriously working her way through, at a pace that would surely have required some milk or at least water in a real child.
The woman patted the spot next to Machina, and Mami stepped her way over, reflecting that, viewed like this, the woman was not nearly so imposing. She could almost be thought of as an ordinary human, even if the ethereal hair and missing face were a bit of a distraction.
"I've always had the impression it bothered me more than them," Mami said, taking a seat. "I've never tried to hide it. I've always tried to make sure we remember the human cost. But I've never thought I was better than them for it. To the contrary, I've often wondered if I would have been a better legislator, a better diplomat, a better leader, if I were more like them. If nothing else, maybe I'd just be happier."
"People can tell, Mami‐san. They can tell that you care, more than the others do. It's why they believe you, and why you keep getting put in these roles. It's because you care that they follow you. They know you're not trading them away for anything small. But they forget that it hurts you, knowing the lives you're responsible for, the lives you have to watch being destroyed, sometimes."
Mami found herself watching Machina eat, then grabbed a cookie herself and ate it, more to fill a gap in the conversation than out of any desire to eat. She didn't know what there was to say.
"To put the pieces together," the woman said. "You see yourself as a hero. Always have. There wasn't any other way, after what happened to you as a child. It was the only way to justify it all to yourself. But the worry gnaws at you, that you might not be a hero, that you might have done too much, or that you're simply not good enough. You want the world to just have its problems solved, and not need you anymore, so you don't have to face that risk."
"So what?" Mami asked, feeling Machina's eyes on her as she spoke. "Am I supposed to be impressed that you, all‐seeing deity of whatever, can read my mind, tell me what my complexes are? Even if you can, that doesn't make any of it go away. I am who I am."
The woman tilted her head.
"But you came here to talk to me, didn't you? Not just because I asked, but because you had questions you wanted to ask. About the meaning of all this, the meaning of what you've done all these years, and the meaning of what you will do. You hope that there is some satisfying answer, something that will make it all worth it. Beyond that, you want to hear from me if you are, indeed, a hero."
Mami closed her eyes, annoyed once again at herself. Why had she lashed out? The woman had said nothing wrong, only… undressed her, figuratively speaking. That was the problem, of course.
"Well, am I?" she asked, peering at the Speaker's podium. "I won't lie. I want to know."
The woman picked up a cookie and placed it back down almost immediately.
"It's your own recipe, Mami‐san," she said. "You don't recognize it?"
Mami looked down, confused by the apparent non‐sequitur, before picking one up and biting into it.
"It's been a long time since I last baked," she said. "But I think you know that. And, to be frank, it was never really all that special."
She wondered what relevance this had. Was the woman avoiding the question?
"Let me tell you a story," the woman said, tilting her head up toward the ceiling. "It's a very short one, so I hope you'll humor me."
She clapped her hands loudly, and Mami nearly startled as curtains that definitely weren't there before drew open to reveal an old‐fashioned projector screen, floating a few feet off the ground in the center of the auditorium. It flickered to life, and ornate numerals began counting down the beginning of a movie.
The characters that appeared on‐screen were rendered abstractly, in stop‐motion, as if a fantastical picturebook were brought to life. The woman spoke as they acted out the story.
"Once upon a time, in the bad old days when magical girls paid dearly for their wishes, one girl who had lost everything took a new girl under her wing, and taught her everything she knew, and told her what magical girls should be. Warriors against the darkness. Guardian angels. Defenders of the helpless."
These last phrases were accentuated with fairy tale imagery, of a girl with a sword standing against the night, an angel floating over a cityscape, a girl protecting another with a wall of chains. Mami, however, saw something a little too familiar about the silhouettes.
"One day, a calamity struck the city, an unprecedented disaster that threatened to destroy everything they loved. The threat was unimaginable, unstoppable. And they fought, and fought, until finally the older girl fell dead. The cause was lost, and there was no hope, but the new girl remembered what she had been told, remembered all that she had been taught, and plunged back into the breach anyway."
The girl on‐screen clenched a darkened hand for a moment, then dove forward, into the maw of some sort of laughing creature.
"She died too, of course. This was no fairy tale, no heroic movie, and she didn't even manage to save the city, which was unceremoniously leveled. She was only an ordinary magical girl, after all, and the universe doesn't care."
The film lingered there, black filling the screen for a long, poignant moment.
"But while the universe might not care, humans do, and there was another girl there to witness it all. She wept, for what she had seen, and wished fervently for another chance. For them all to have another chance."
The image swirled, and the black gave way to a soft, familiar glow.
"And though the journey was long and lonely, at the end, there was hope—hope, through which they all were saved. And all because one girl had withstood the darkness in her heart, and tried to make the best of an empty world."
The screen transitioned to a pale white, showing the first, older girl walking home alone from school, a bag in her hands, head bowed. The details were obscured, blotted out artistically by the filmmaker.
"So you tell me, is this girl a hero? If you had asked her, she wouldn't have said so. Her regrets were many, and her impact little. When the end arrived, and she knew there was nothing she could do, she led the attack anyway, because it was right. And though she never knew it, that made all the difference. I wish there had been some way to tell her."
Mami waited, choosing to study her hands for a moment, before saying:
"It fits all the usual definitions of a hero. A tragic one, seeking some kind of redemption, I imagine. But you're telling me this story for a reason. Is the girl me? Was this story erased and replaced by our world, with the MSY? I struggle to make the pieces fit, but there are some wishes that change reality…"
"You have always been a hero," the woman said, taking her hand. "Think about how the stories go. Heroes are celebrated not just for their deeds, but for their heroic souls. You have a heroic soul. I would know. And still, Humanity needs that hero."
Those last words jolted Mami, who had been falling into an introspective daze. She had been telling the truth earlier, the validation did matter—even if she hadn't known how much.
She could—she would—let those feelings wash over her.
But not yet.
"That's right," Mami said. "This isn't just to talk about me, this is supposed to also be about the war."
"I was going to remind you eventually," Machina said, sucking on a juice box she had materialized from, apparently, Mami's memories. "You were going to see if she would tell you about the future."
"That's privileged knowledge, Mami‐san," the woman said, raising a finger rebukingly. "I can't really give that away easily. Do you have any idea the kind of causality problems that entails?"
She waved her hand ominously.
"You do not want to see the equations."
Mami wrinkled her brow, struck by the absurdity of being lectured on this, and on its presentation. Was she… being made fun of?
"What about Akemi Homura then?" Machina asked. "Can you tell us about her? We're pretty sure she's still alive, but what is she doing? Is she alright?"
Mami wouldn't have thought it possible for a faceless divine being to look fazed, but somehow she did, shoulders dropping just a little, so that Mami wasn't sure if she was imagining it.
"It's complicated," the woman said.
She paused, seeming to decide that she needed a different answer.
"I know that in your heart she's always going to be your kouhai. That kind of caring is what makes you you. But you can trust that I care about her too, and that what she's working on is important. She would not have left otherwise."
"The last time I saw her, she was half‐insane," Mami said, making an effort to keep her voice neutral. "It is difficult for me to believe she was thinking clearly."
Again, Mami thought she saw the woman waver, just a little.
"Perhaps not. The road she walks is not an easy one, and it is in some sense my fault. She will need your support, and when she does, you will find her."
"And what exactly will she need my help with?" Mami insisted. "You're avoiding the—"
She recoiled before even finishing the sentence, cringing at the anger that grated against her soul like sandpaper, the woman's displeasure seeming to imbue every sensation, every thought. She hadn't known it was possible for reality itself to warn you.
"You remember what I said about causality? I'm not answering that, just like I'm not here to provide you a roadmap to the war, no matter how much you think you might want it," the woman said. "You wanted a straight conversation, so that is why I am here in my more… cynical form. These are the most direct answers anyone has ever gotten from me. It was not easy to make this safe. I would be grateful, if I were you."
Mami looked to the side for a moment, wishing that she could at least look this woman in the eyes. But this was no equal negotiation, obviously, and she had been rudely reminded that this was Her world, in a way she preferred not to repeat.
"I suppose that's fair," she said eventually. "I would say I won't stop looking into this, but I would guess that whatever I do is what you want me to do anyway, if you really can see the future."
The woman made a scoffing noise, almost a laugh, but did not deny it, and no further reply came for a while.
It was hard to tell, but it seemed like her thoughts were elsewhere.
Eventually, the woman sighed, and a sudden breeze blew over them, carrying away the tension in the air. Mami still couldn't see her face, but had the distinct impression that the woman was now smiling at her. The mood had changed.
"I called you back here because I knew you would need some support," the woman said. "And, yes, to tell you a little about the war. The mining operation at the pulsar concerns you, doesn't it?"
Mami considered the change in topic.
"Not just the pulsar mines, but the squid build‐up," Mami said. "The mines are simply one way to hit back, maybe. I wish we had more. I wish this war didn't…"
She paused, weighing her next words, even if both of the other parties here could hear her thoughts.
"I wish it didn't feel like I was stuck in the keep of a slowly‐crumbling castle," she said. "The military projections for conventional war, as carried on so far, are poor. I don't need to tell you that. The current strategy is to stall it out, and wait for a technological breakthrough or bona fide miracle. It doesn't feel good; it doesn't feel right. I feel like I should be doing something, and I'm trying. It was so much easier when you could just shoot the problem with a cannon."
"You're doing your best, Mami‐san," the woman said. "And you've never made the most of yourself at the front lines, no matter how satisfying it would feel. And about the pulsar… let's just say I have a positive feeling about that."
Mami thought about that for a moment. She knew that just the hint was a major concession, but…
"That's it, then?"
The woman shrugged, an oddly fluid motion that seemed somehow uncanny, like an approximation of the human gesture.
"Tell me, Mami‐san, what are your opinions of the Cephalopods?"
"The aliens?" Mami asked, perturbed by the change of topic. "They're a genocidal menace. They showed up out of nowhere to attack us, they've killed millions, they're monsters. What should I think about them?"
"Their behavior is a bit odd, though, isn't it?" the woman asked. "They really don't seem like they're all that interested in finishing the job."
"Tell that to anyone who has had to fight them," Mami said, shaking her head at the line of discussion. "They certainly seem damn interested in finishing the job then! I know…"
She paused, realizing that she might have started getting a little heated.
"I know the way they behave doesn't really seem to make sense when you consider the bigger picture, but there are theories about that. Maybe they just don't want to take us to the brink unless they're sure they can wipe us out in one go. That's a sure way to trigger a wish I wouldn't want to be on the other side of."
"How would they even know about wishes?" the woman asked. "Have they ever seen one?"
"It can't be ruled out, but it doesn't have to be wishes. They might just have noticed that we keep pulling off impossible comebacks. It's possible they're just keeping the pressure on while they prepare an impossibly large force. It's… it's kind of my nightmare, to wake up one day and find every front collapsing at once."
She hadn't meant to say that last part until she said it, but it had been the natural thought and, well, who else could she could reveal it to other than these two?
"I don't think that's terribly likely," the woman said. "But you don't know very much about these aliens, do you?"
"We don't," Mami said, frowning at the statement of unlikelihood. "Do you?"
She said the last question with an air of dawning realization. Indeed, she had been so focused on questions about the war and the future, that she had failed to realize that she could ask about the aliens.
"After the initial stages of the war, the aliens sure adapted to us fast, didn't they?" the woman said, not directly answering the question. "Self‐destruct modules to make capture more difficult, siloed knowledge to make mind‐reading less strategically effective, all kinds of little tricks."
"We thought their AIs were just really good at contingency response," Mami said.
"In the twenty years since, have they ever struck you as particularly adaptive?" the woman said. "Only some of the time, right?"
"Yes, only some of the time," Mami agreed.
"Just food for thought," the woman said.
She ducked her head, and Mami was particularly bothered for a moment that she couldn't read this being's expression.
"Who are you?" Mami couldn't help asking.
"Just a friend," the woman said, standing up and making a show of patting her dress. "I am sorry, but I really should be going."
Mami started to protest, but it died on her lips when the woman turned, and Mami could see her eyes.
The world changed around her, the plenary chamber warping, its architecture turning visibly alien, overly round. The seats around her filled with aliens, frozen in place, dressed in robes of patterned color. Below her, at what would have been the speaker's podium, stood a single Cephalopod, dressed like the others, facing upward as those nearest stood and pointed, or raised tentacles.
It was all Mami could do not to recoil at the sight, but somehow, she thought, the aliens were angry at the speaker.
Next to her, the woman turned, and Mami found her eyes drawn oddly to her hair, which had started waving slowly, forming loops in the air.
Go now, the woman's voice said in her mind, with a resonance that drowned out all thought, a cadence that seemed inhuman. You have work to do.
And then she was back in the real world, eyes already open, and the Incubator was looking at her, and she could feel Machina in her head again.