Comparing the world of yesteryear with the world of today, one has a sense of jarring dislocation, accentuated by the fact that so many alive today have no real sense of what has even changed. They may know the answer intellectually, but in their heart, like someone who has lived through it all? Not a chance.

It is almost too easy to talk about the weather. Global average temperature is back to the historical human norm, managed by Governance terraforming and solar shades, but that does not make it the same, a fact which is drilled into every primary school student on a school trip. The ice caps may be back, but the rains no longer fall where they once did. Only the most enduring climactic features, like the monsoon, persist. And it is almost passé to point out that no one in the megacities has any real feel for this.

What matters, after all, is not the exact temperature but how we got here, and the era before and during the Unification Wars saw the most unstable climates of recorded history, containing both unthinkably hot summers and ice‐cold nuclear winters. Along with over half the prewar human population went enormous chunks of ecological diversity. Well‐known species, animals I had grown up seeing in magazines, disappeared into oblivion, except for a few individuals in the surviving zoos. And that doesn't even begin to tell the loss. Nearly every viable fishery collapsed—synthesizers were a pressing need for a long time, unless you liked eating nutrient paste.

But you know what? That's not really what gets to me. When I was young, I saw almost every part of Earth. Almost every country, in the course of various wars, events, history. None of that is the same anymore. Not just the nation‐states, but the people. Where they live. How they live.

Everything was changed by the wars. You can't empty a world out without emptying out its homes. The bustle of New York City, the towers of the Middle East, the ridiculous crowds of India, old Rome—all of that is gone now. We've tried to rebuild the really important stuff, but it's not organic. I've tried visiting—sometimes it feels like even the residents are just lingering tourists.

It's funny what survives, though. No one has strictly needed to farm in centuries, and Governance gives every incentive to move into the city, but a few people still insist on living out on the land, working out there even. There are still farms, plantations, ranches, and thank heaven for that.

I will probably never see a lumberjack or oil field roustabout again, though…

— Clarisse van Rossum, personal blog post, MSY "Theban" community blogging platform.

General Order No. 2461‒37 reprioritizes the investigation of Cephalopod society, economics, and, above all, motivations. After two decades of only halting progress on this front, and the sense that further progress was likely impossible, this comes as a considerable surprise. However, our sources indicate that Chair of the General Staff Tomoe Mami has begun a major push into the research. When asked, a spokesperson for the General Staff declined comment on the order.

— "Your Daily War in Brief," Armed Forces Network, 2461.

"I have to say, I did not expect such a personal visit," Director Volokhov said, escorting his guest down the hallway. "I would have prepared more with more warning. As it is, I hardly have a reception fit for the occasion."

"That won't be necessary," Mami said, shaking her head. "This is just a stopover. I wanted to talk to the girls here personally, since I was so close already. You're really not that far from Carthago."

She wasn't being entirely honest, of course. The recent successes aboard Adept Blue, and the corresponding task of turning them to Humanity's best advantage, had been occupying much of her mind lately. But no amount of hospitality that Volokhov could place on her would make the job easier.

"It's a shame you missed Director Valentin. She just left a couple of days ago. She's not really a specialist on the subject matter at hand, but I daresay her input would have been useful. After all, before she became an administrator, she was on the Von Rohr forcefield team."

She decided not to embarrass him by pointing out that she had already known about Director Valentin, since Machina had brought it up when reviewing the station's visitor logs earlier. Nor would she say that, like Machina, she found it just a touch… suspicious.

"Anyway," Volokhov added. "At your request, I did rearrange the lab schedule to have the girls available for this time slot. I must insist you take a tour of the facilities and observe one of our newer experiments. I know I brought you in here before, but it's not like there were functioning wormholes to see last time, were there?"

Mami smiled politely at the AI's solicitousness. She had no intention of leaving the station without seeing at least one experiment, provided it was a real experiment.

"As long as we're not taking on any needless risks," she said. "I wouldn't want to ask them to do anything just to show me."

"I understand what's important," Volokhov said, ducking his head in response.

The AI stepped in front of her, gesturing at a door to her right, which slid open in apparent response. She stepped through, Volokhov's avatar following close behind.

Nakihara Asami and Shizuki Ryouko were already standing, waiting for her in one of the station's conference rooms, dressed in their ceremonial uniforms as she had asked. Naturally, they were part of why she came here, though not in a way Volokhov was likely to suspect.

"Good afternoon, girls," she said, even though it was really more like evening station time. "I trust you've been well."

"As well I can be, isolated on a station like this," Ryouko said, with the smallest of glances at her companion. "No offense to Vlad's hospitality."

She paused, considering something.

"But, good to see you anyway, Mami‐san."

Mami couldn't fault girls as young as they were for chafing under the confinement, especially compared to their previous posting on Eurydome. She acknowledged the greeting, closing her eyes for a moment, but not moving to take a seat, as might have been expected.

"Well, first things first," she said, turning to face Asami. "I asked you to arrive in your ceremonial uniform."

The girl shifted self‐consciously, glancing at Ryouko while pulling at one of her sleeves, and Mami allowed a smile to creep up the side of her face. The nervousness was natural: the girl couldn't help but wonder what Mami had planned.

A moment later, Clarisse and Machina appeared, materializing out of thin air with a custom sparkle effect. Clarisse was using an "older Ryouko" form, which Mami supposed made sense, but Machina was using what was obviously a child form of Mami, which was honestly kind of embarrassing.

They were, however, dressed in the same uniforms as their human hosts, and she couldn't help but notice that Machina looked adorable. Volokhov even bent over and ruffled her hair, a gesture Mami wished she could replicate.

"I feel almost left out," Asami said, eying the two TacComps, but not questioning their presence.

"Don't be, this is your event," Clarisse said, grabbing Machina by the hand and spinning her around.

Mami nodded in agreement, making sure she caught Asami's attention. She had, of course, given a hint to the purpose of this ceremony beforehand, but had stopped short of telling the others anything for certain. She liked to indulge in little surprises every once in a while.

"As you may know, promotions for magical girls in the military operate a bit differently from promotions for everyone else," Mami said, smiling as she worked her way through a familiar bit of oratory. "Outside of the true leadership positions, they represent partially how important you are to the service, rather than just your exact position in the chain of command. This is especially true in the non‐combat branches."

She paused for a moment, reaching into her pocket to retrieve a marker of rank.

"You may take this, then, as affirmation of your importance to us, and Governance's reminder to all that you are not just a weapon or a tool, but an individual worthy of respect."

She stepped forward, pinning the marker to Asami's shoulder. The girl looked surprised, almost overwhelmed, even though it must have been easy to guess what was going on. Mami smiled brightly, thinking back to the MHD report that had said the girl felt inadequate and needed positive affirmation.

"Congratulations, first lieutenant."

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," Asami said. "It makes sense, given what we've done here, even if I don't feel like I've done that much in combat."

She shook her head at the attention she was getting, even as Ryouko gave her a hug and assorted AIs clapped politely.

I really haven't done that much, Mami could hear her think, probing just a little. It's all just because of my power, anyway. It's not like I did that much.

Mami managed to avoid biting her lip at the girl's thought. It was the kind of sentiment she was familiar with, something she had seen in a hundred people, but not one that was easy to respond to. It was human nature, almost, not to give yourself permission to be happy.

"The rank is something to be happy about," she said, looking Asami in the eye. "It doesn't matter how you got it."

She put a hand to her mouth, wondering how to proceed. This wasn't the only reason she was here, and a part of her wanted to defer the main topic to sometime later, after she had visited the other girls on the station, and even enjoyed herself a little.

But business was business, she decided, and she gestured at the others to take a seat around the small conference table. Machina jumped onto one of the seats and shimmered slightly, taking on an older form so her head would be visible over the table. She frowned, then returned to her previous form, the chair extending its legs underneath her instead.

"I have looked over the results of the wormhole experiments," Mami said, after looking around the table to make sure everyone was settled, "and the General Staff is very pleased with the results. However…"

Here she paused, both for rhetorical effect and to choose her words carefully.

"Well, this is privileged information, but we don't exactly have the luxury of time. Not as much as one might think."

She briefly met their gazes, making sure they understood, before nodding at Machina. The girl leaned over the table, making a show of poking at imaginary buttons. A holographic presentation shimmered to life over the table a moment later, and Machina used it to explain, with brief military‐style transmissions, the situation currently prevailing in the war, particularly the aliens' unexpectedly rapid offensive buildup after their defeat in the Euphratic Sector.

"If we can't prevent or greatly delay this offensive, Governance will have no choice but to go on a much more aggressive war footing," Mami said. "And while that may stave off defeat in the short‐term, there will be no question that we could not win in the long‐term. We would have to consider desperate measures, measures that haven't been thought about since the height of the Unification Wars."

She didn't have to fill in that particular blank space—that could be done by anyone who had a passing familiarity with history, or even with the political debates surrounding the conduct of the current Contact War.

"And you're hoping we can provide the kind of miracle everybody's looking for," Volokhov said, without making it a question.

He clasped his hands on the table, giving Mami an appraising look.

"Pretty much," Mami admitted. "You have already made a successful wormhole, and you have already given us a relatively undefended target. If you could scale the wormhole up, we might be able to strike them once where they'll never expect it. Destroy their logistics and delay their offensive. Everything we have suggests that a pulsar mining operation would be one of the few things they would find truly difficult to replace."

Volokhov leaned back in his chair, which flexed itself backwards to reflect the movement of his holographic avatar.

"Those are words a research director should love to hear. It sounds like an unlimited resource allocation, as many personnel as I could want, collaborators… but somehow I still feel a sense of foreboding. It's a big responsibility, and…"

He glanced over at Asami and Ryouko meaningfully.

"Not just a matter for me. It affects them too, and I am aware they may not be all that thrilled with staying here."

A trite "we all make sacrifices" flashed into her head, but she waved it away. There were more useful things to be said.

"I know," she said, shaking her head slightly. "Trust me, I know. But it is the best choice, and in times like these, only the best choice will do. I won't tell any of you that I care, or that I understand, because you know that I do. That doesn't change anything. Right now, there is only one choice. Maybe in the future there will be more."

She looked at the girls in question, feeling Machina and Volokhov's gaze on her, feeling judged.

"This isn't just about keeping you under watch anymore, or about giving you something to do. You've made yourself important, and the thing about being important is that you no longer have any choices. You can only do what is right, what you have to. That is what I do."

She blinked, the moment passing, and felt a twinge of embarrassment. She had sounded like she was speaking out of a motivational brochure of some sort, one for the too responsibility‐laden.

But it worked, because of course it had. The two girls looked at her with an odd sort of awe, the kind of awe one might have when peering up at a particularly ancient tree. She wasn't sure she appreciated it.

Then Ryouko blinked herself, swallowing as she did so, and Mami sensed that she was about to say something risky.

"I don't think we mind doing that, not for something this important, even if it has been a little dull here. But would it be possible to schedule a break? According to the usual rules, we're due for a little leave, and surely there must be some time we can take off. Equipment upgrades, something like that?"

Ryouko cast a glance at Volokhov, and Mami followed her look. The AI could speak to that better than she could.

He sighed.

"Well, I'm always interested in more experiments," he said. "But it is true that if we're going to upscale, we're going to have to build something new. Bigger. Possibly larger than this facility. We would have to pull in researchers from across human space, requisition resources on a military scale. I would love to hide ourselves in deep space, but we'd probably want to use the energy of the Icarus cloud…"

He trailed off there, realizing that he had tangented.

"Anyway, I am sure there would be time somewhere for you to take a break. It is only fair. As long as you go somewhere absolutely safe."

The last sentence was mild and calmly said, but somehow he managed to make it contain an undercurrent of worry. Mami wasn't sure if the AI might be growing attached, or if this was standard concern for important experimental subjects.

"Yes, that goes without saying," she said. "And I would recommend somewhere close, probably even on Earth or Mars if possible, to shorten travel time. Governance will cover your travel expenses, of course."

To her surprise, Asami smiled sheepishly.

"Don't worry about that," she said. "We already have an idea."

"Living in the cities, it is easy to forget how much of Earth's surface has depopulated. During the Unification Wars and the troubled times that preceded them, entire regions emptied out, their populations becoming refugees, fleeing the war, or simply dying. In many cases, they were fleeing epochal famines, their sources of food vanishing under an erratic climate. They fled to the cities, the rich nations, where food could still be grown in more managed climates, or in the worst cases manufactured. All of the hard work of prewar international cooperation, the solar shades, the geoengineering, the resources shipped in from wealthier nations, fell apart in the wars, as countries turned what they could still afford into managing their own ecologies."

Asami paused, nodding to herself in satisfaction, before turning her head slightly to check if Ryouko was listening.

She was, of course. It was a topic that was at least loosely connected to her own interests.

Instead of meeting Asami's eyes, she regarded the girl, who had stopped, raising her arms as if to embrace the landscape in front of her. It had been a weird speech, a historical narrative that sounded odd coming from her mouth, almost as if she had run it through her TacComp for textual refinement, which she might have.

She stepped forward, taking her place next to Asami and making a show of looking down from their mountainside, even though she had already seen it. They were on a trail in the tropical Andes, looking down on a lush green reconstructed rainforest, and beyond it the yellowish‐brown dry zone that it had been reconstructed from.

She could fill in the rest of Asami's story without help, about how global warming, climatic variance, bioweapons, and even nuclear warfare had combined to destroy ecosystems the world over, and how even now much of the Earth was uninhabited, and moreover rather inhospitable to habitation. Governance had concentrated the population into the best land, creating massive urban centers and idyllic rural areas for maximal economic efficiency, while it worked stubbornly on the problem of re‐terraforming Earth. Giving Humanity back the planet of its ancestors, so to speak.

She knew that because it was a common refrain in the educational material they had been taught as children, an explanation for why they should care about biology, ecology, and organisms, in a world where most children grew up with technology, machines, and computers.

So she stood there, looking out over a brilliant landscape of green, blue, red, and brown, accentuated by shades of infrared and ultraviolet, and a seemingly endless potpourri of scents, carried aloft by the wind. Birds sang, insects buzzed, and she thought she could even hear some monkey calls, far in the distance. It was mid‐afternoon, and the temperature was pleasant despite the humidity.

It was not really a natural forest, of course, no matter its aspirations. Most of the species here had been painfully reintroduced or reconstructed, trusted to expand and diversify by naturalists with crossed fingers. Water was brought in from vast distances, or condensed from the atmosphere on site, until the climate could be convinced to once again rain copiously on the land here. A small army of drones worked at the edge of the desert, building temporary greenhouses and seeding waves of hardy, nitrogen‐fixing crops to restore the soil, until the land could take care of itself.

And, of course, they wouldn't truly be out here if it wasn't absolutely safe. Drones disguised as almost every native animal watched the forests, kept their trail clear, and would warn them if any large predators chose to wander their way. In a way the environment was almost as artificial as natural.

Still, no matter how many caveats you inserted, it was beautiful.

"Wasn't there an entire conflict over the ecology management?" Ryouko said, turning finally towards Asami. "Something about a solar shade?"

"The Shade War, yes," Asami said, accepting her cue. "A dumb name."

Ryouko couldn't help but agree, but that was the name that had stuck. Most of the major space projects had stayed remarkably intact throughout the war, but one of them was special, since it served primarily to protect East Asia, which was mostly on the UF side. That put it on the targeting lists.

Asami turned away from the vista, gesturing the two of them farther down the path. They were here to spend a week out on "approved wilderness activities", a glorified camping trip where they were expected to also take surveys of local wildlife, check in on the drone population, and not do anything stupid, or they would learn exactly how the Governance legal system functioned. So the cheerful ranger had warned them.

She shrugged, feeling the weight of her backpack on her shoulders, suppressing a smile as she watched Asami's CubeBot cling to the top of her bag, single eye warbling to and fro as it interacted with the local networks. There were no demon spawns out here, so they had to pack all they needed.

There was something about all this, the new sights and sounds, the light sense of adventure, the feel of walking off into the forest, that greatly lifted her mood. It helped make the many concerns swirling around her soul feel… farther away, even if their shadows seemed always just at the edge of her awareness.

Asami, too, seemed to be in a buoyant mood, humming a song as she walked, pausing every so often to look at this or that plant. The canopy here was sparse, high up the slope, and afforded the luxury of encountering relatively few plants at a time.

"Is something wrong?" Ryouko asked, when Asami paused about twice as long as usual at a specific fern growing in the shade of a tree.

"Is it just me, or does this look like a wire?" Asami asked, raising a section of leaf with one hand, showing her where part of it had snapped off. Indeed, something that looked like a bit of metal string was dangling out of the stem. As they watched, it slowly unraveled into even thinner strands, gossamer fibers breaking apart in the air.

"Did you just snap it or something?" Ryouko asked.

"We're supposed to be taking samples," Asami said, rolling her eyes. "You could at least pretend to have paid attention."

"Ah, I just thought we weren't going to focus on that until we had set up camp," Ryouko said, inventing a handy excuse on the spot. "We can always find more samples after we're done, and it'll be easier to set up our camp if we do it while it's still light out. Or, at least it would be more pleasant."

"I guess that makes sense," Asami said, buying into her logic with surprising ease. "You would think they would have prepared us a bit better for all this."

"We're augmented and magical," Ryouko said. "We could probably fall asleep in the rain naked at night and still be okay."

By the Goddess, don't give her more ideas, Clarisse thought, forcing Ryouko to choke back a laugh.

Asami didn't notice, having turned her attention back to the odd leaf.

"What do you suppose this is, then?" she said.

It's probably one of the 'experimental augmented plants' that are listed for the area, Clarisse thought, this time broadcasting it to Asami. They're testing a limited deployment in this area to see how much value it provides to the drone monitoring. Check the guide we were given.

Asami tilted her head.

"Huh, that's an interesting concept. I guess that must be it. How that could interact safely with the animal life is beyond me. But I'm starting to think maybe I should look into getting some upgrades for my TacComp, if it can't notice something like that. As long as it doesn't, you know, start getting too intelligent. Not that I'm implying Clarisse is bad, or anything."

Asami made a face, clearly realizing that she had spoken too quickly.

Ryouko made a conciliatory gesture with her hands.

"I know what you mean. I doubt they'll be doing any of that anytime soon anyway. Lest you forget, there's a movie coming out, and Clarisse will be an important character. The three of us have already gotten some interview requests from certain ethics committees. I don't think it's going to pass quietly."

Asami looked away for a moment.

"It's just… I guess I never imagined living with a girl with someone else in her head. This is not how I ever imagined a relationship, not anything like I used to fantasize. Clarisse doesn't come between us, I know, but it still takes some getting used to. I know you didn't ask for it either."

I didn't either, but no one really gets to ask for everything, do they? We just have to reach out and take what we can. I think all of us here understand that.

Asami, who had also been transmitted the thought, blinked in surprise, catching Ryouko's eye for a moment.

"Well yeah. I think we do," she said, shaking her head.

Asami stood up and ran her hand through her hair, which coiled and uncoiled.

"Speaking of having extra people around, and falling asleep naked in the rain, and drone monitoring systems, and… everything else, I was actually looking forward to having some time to ourselves, without having to know that a security detail might be watching us at any moment."

She was referring to Eri, Elanis, and the rest of their assigned bodyguards, who would spend the duration of their stay here near the ranger station, monitoring the drone networks for any sign of something wrong. Ryouko shared the sentiment, even if Eri and Elanis had started to feel like distant schoolmates rather than nosy busybodies.

"It's unavoidable," Ryouko said, even though she knew that Asami already knew this answer. "If someone is really after us, it's doubtful some park security would be a safe enough replacement for ours."

"Yeah, I know," Asami said, sighing. "I just wonder sometimes, like, what they do with the surveillance data?"

What does Governance do with all surveillance data? Clarisse interrupted rhetorically. Standard protocol involves having automated algorithms and semi‐sentients filtering out sensitive material before anyone sentient can view it. I imagine your security team does the same. That's not possible for me, but I'd have you know that I don't pay that much attention during 'intimate moments'. Not anymore. Nowadays I just organize messages, or something.

"Well, part of it is that you taught Ryouko so well!" Asami said, chuckling.

You seem chatty today, Ryouko thought.

I think I've earned a vacation too, Clarisse thought. I can unwind a little. And if the two of you are here to figure out your relationship, I should figure out my involvement too. Since, you know, I'm not leaving anytime soon.

Trying to figure out our relationship, huh, Ryouko thought, as if tasting the concept. It's weird to hear it put so bluntly. I guess that's pretty much what we're doing.

I would say so.

They ended up making camp farther down the slope, where the air was warmer and the swarms of insects near the creek stayed away from the odd‐smelling humans. They stood there for a long moment, holding hands and watching their tent establish itself in the soil.

"It would have been more romantic if we had had to do more than just unpack and watch," Asami said, as a small team of drones scurried past their feet with an inflatable bedroll. "On the other hand, I guess this leaves us more energy to spend on other things."

Ryouko nodded once, preoccupied with her thoughts, and what Clarisse had said. What did it mean for that to be the reason for their trip? Did it mean they hadn't figured it out? How did that bode long‐term? She found the idea of them somehow not working out chilling, and wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

She worried about it even when Asami pulled her by the hand into the tent, and she thought she might have to insist she wasn't in the mood.

"Something is bothering you," Asami said, dropping into a seated position on the bedroll. "You've been quiet this whole time. Is it really so bad, out here in the wilderness? I thought you liked new things."

Ryouko sighed, knowing that even if she could avoid this conversation, she shouldn't, and perhaps didn't even want to.

"You remember, once, wondering if the two of us really matched, if we would really last long‐term even if we made it through everything alive? On San Giuseppe, just before the X‐25 mission."

Asami looked away from her for a moment, with an obviously uncomfortable expression.

"You mean, do I remember without computer assistance? Of course I do. I think about it sometimes. We've… lived together for a while. Been through things together. I think we're alright."

A trace of worry underlay what she said, and Ryouko supposed she couldn't blame her. It was not a topic one brought up lightly.

"I think so too," Ryouko said, making sure she said that first. "But Clarisse said something interesting, about how this date, this trip, is really about figuring out who we are, what we want our relationship to be. Right now, we're sort of just clinging onto each other while the world spins by. But what about in the future? What about then?"

And when will the Goddess be done with me? she appended mentally.

Asami rubbed the bottom of the tent, and they both turned their heads to watch the worker drones scurry back into the recharging unit, which had dug itself into a patch of soil. They returned to their original forms, origami bodies folding to fit what seemed like an impossibly small space. Only the best for a favored granddaughter, the gift message from Shizuki Sayaka had said.

"Clarisse didn't really say all that, did she?" Asami said, finally.

"Only the first part," Ryouko admitted. "I… find myself craving certainty, in the midst of all this. We survived the combat missions. We survived everything after that. I think we need to understand more than the moment. Maybe that's why we're here. To see if we can enjoy ourselves here, alone, with nothing else to do, no one else to talk to."

Asami slipped her feet out of her shoes, then leaned over onto her shoulder.

"I was worried you were going somewhere else with this," she said. "But I'm actually happy to hear you say that."

"How so?" Ryouko asked, accepting the gesture of intimacy by curling their hair together. "It's not exactly a pleasant topic."

"It means you're thinking about the long‐term. You're thinking about us. I…"

She tensed slightly, her shoulders and hair tightening against Ryouko, before leaning over further and putting her head in her lap, looking up at her eyes.

"I don't really have a home, you know? Nowhere to go to, no real purpose in life… but when I think about it, it doesn't scare me. There's so much left to see, so much left to do. But then I think about what it would be like without you, and it makes me cold. I realize now…"

She paused again, seeming to relax a little.

"Governance talks about having eternity to find your purpose, and I think I finally understand what that means. But right now, I don't want to do it alone. So yeah, it makes me happy that you care about the long‐term, even if the questions are difficult. It means we at least have a chance. It means you probably won't get yourself killed, trying to find something new and exciting to do."

Ryouko listened to those words and felt it stir something inside her. What was it that she had thought once? That she had been so ready to leave her old life behind, to explore new vistas, and find new worlds, that she hadn't put any thought into what she was leaving behind. And with that gone, the stable life and family she had known disintegrating almost immediately, she had found herself adrift, with little to hold to.

This was its reflection.

"What do you think our relationship is, then?" she asked, leaning down over the other girl. "Who do you think we are? Just two teenagers, trying to find their way in the world alone? That's what my mom said—and why she wanted to live with us."

Asami laughed, a high‐pitched sound that Ryouko had gotten quite used to.

"Well, she's not wrong. It's kind of a shame she can't follow us everywhere… though I probably wouldn't want her to."

Asami shook her head at the silly comment, hair dragging along Ryouko's pants, before sobering up a little.

"As for what our relationship is, I don't know," she said. "I like the image of just having you as a life partner, someone to experience life with, to understand each other, to fill each other's needs."

Ryouko considered those words for a while, turning her head to listen to the birds and monkeys holler in the distance.

"You realize what you said sounds like some kind of wedding speech?" she said, finally. "Is that where we're going with this?"

She expected the topic to shock Asami into silence, perhaps, but the other girl instead avoided her gaze.

"Maybe. That's definitely what I wanted, for a while. Not that I wouldn't want to now. But when we were just starting out, I was kind of obsessed with the idea of finding somewhere nice to live, dodging the war somehow, having a couple of kids—all of that. But I know now that's not for you. Maybe not even for me. Not yet. There's too many other things to do first."

Ryouko ran her fingers through the other girl's hair, the strands squirming and wrapping briefly around her hand.

So at the risk of seeming impertinent, I feel like I should point out that there's no rule that says you have to live in one place and have kids to get married, Clarisse thought, again to both of them. Plenty of people don't. There's all kinds of nontraditional arrangements that are popular nowadays. If you want, I could…

The voice trailed off, as Asami rolled off of Ryouko to hide a blush and Ryouko found herself wishing Clarisse was someone she could chuck one of the drones at.

"Damn it, Clarisse," she said out loud. "If I wanted to propose, I'd do it myself."

Okay, okay, I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. I was just, you know, trying to be helpful.

"I don't think I'm ready for that discussion," Asami said, springing off the ground immediately afterward. "If nothing else, my parents would probably panic themselves right into Emergency Mode if I invited them to a wedding at my age."

She said the words flippantly, but with a tremulous undertone that made it clear the topic had hit a nerve.

"Let's go for a walk," she said. "We're supposed to be collecting samples, and now's as good a time as any."

She started to put her shoes back on, the material flexing to wrap itself back around her feet.

Ryouko wondered if this was really alright. They had only just arrived, and she was pretty sure the intent had been to settle in for a while.

Why had she brought up the topic of marriage in the first place?

Neither of them was ready for that; Asami's parents would have been right to freak out at such an idea. And as had been demonstrated to her recently, marriage wasn't really a guarantor of certainty anyway. Perhaps nothing was, in the long run, other than a wish.

She frowned, remembering how she had first agreed to date Asami. Then, she had made a leap of faith, plunging into this relationship so suddenly that it had felt like she had changed something about herself. Somehow, this felt like that moment, where the world was out of phase with her soul, and she could bring it back into place.

"Asami," she said, standing up to grab her girlfriend by the shoulder.

"Hmm?" she asked, surprised out of some kind of reverie.

"I love you," Ryouko said, making sure the other girl saw in her eyes that she was serious.

"W–what?" Asami replied, face shifting rapidly between confused, worried, and perhaps even excited.

"I'm serious. I haven't said it, have I? But I mean it. I've gotten used to living with you, I couldn't stand to be without you, and…"

She paused, feeling her cheeks flushing red, even as she had an odd sense of déjà vu.

"And honestly, I think I wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice myself for you, if it somehow came to that."

"I love you too!" Asami said, finally catching her breath. "Whatever else happens, we'll always have that!"

Ryouko knew what was expected, leaning in for a kiss that somehow felt fuller, more intimate than the many they had shared before.

She broke contact long seconds later, and wondered if Asami's eyes had always looked so vibrant.

They stood there awkwardly, then, hair tangled, wondering what exactly to do now.

Maybe you two could make some food together? Clarisse suggested. I seem to recall that you were talking about maybe cooking something using the portable grill? Or, alternatively, I suppose I could go sort some files while you two entertain yourselves. I don't mind either way.

Asami laughed.

Director Tao Shaojie sat at his new desk and marveled at how fast it had all come together.

It was amazing what could be done, given the proper motivation, and unrestricted resource allocation.

They had almost emptied Governance space of relevant specialists—the professors, directors, assistants and students all the way down to promising high schoolers, leaving behind a torrent of sabbaticals, vacation requests, and other likely excuses. They were not being subtle, and even with the whole weight of quiet Governance censorship, someone would eventually look in the right places and ask the right questions. But that would take months, and they would be done before then. Anything else was unacceptable.

Much time had been spent in accelerated virtuality deciding on a course of action, on what exactly to do, what exactly to build. What it was, ultimately, that this monumental undertaking would produce. And monumental it would be, diverting significant percentages of war materiel to a scientific‐military‐magic endeavor that could become another great step forward in human progress.

Given the timescales and stakes involved, the decision had been made to make a maximal effort, to attempt the most ambitious project possible. Anything less, after all, left the possibility that something that needed to be done might be left un‐done. And even if they failed, they might still be able to achieve something, and there would be no shortage of data, no matter what happened.

Even now, with the benefit of some hindsight, Director Tao believed in that decision, and in the people carrying it out alongside him. Whatever doubts they might have felt would be channeled back into theory, experimentation, and verification, until they were as sure as possible that what they were trying would work. This project…

They didn't even really have a name for this, did they? Still just a code, 3d4a‒626.

Regardless, to say this project was big would be putting it lightly. They were well beyond the proof of concept, sending a small, volunteer frigate through a wormhole between Sol and Alpha Centauri. Now they were aiming to send a small armada, and send it hundreds of light‐years. Not even the Cephalopods, erstwhile masters of this technology, had ever done that without a stabilizer on both sides of the rift.

It would have been fair to say they were trying to use their magical girls, their unique resources, to leapfrog the aliens, in a way that had hitherto only been done on a tactical level.

It would be a miracle if it worked.

Tao had thought that he, the head of a major research lab, was immune to pressure. But here they—the scientists, the construction crews, and AIs of all stripes—would be attempting to warp reality itself, building an unprecedented prototype structure in the depths of interstellar space, far from prying eyes and sensors. A structure upon which hinged, maybe, the tide of the entire war.

There was a lot of pressure there.

With a sigh, Tao left his desk and went to stand in front of the viewing pane overlooking the slowly‐assembling apparatus, already visible in skeletal form. Ships and drones wove their way through it with a languid grace. It took knowing that the ships were frigate‐sized to realize just how massive the device already was, and how massive it would be.

It was a bit inaccurate to think of the whole thing as one giant generator. Even with all the resources at their disposal, it would have been ridiculously inefficient to try to contain all they were doing in one location—and unnecessary, when they were intending to move starships anyway.

Instead, they were building six small stations arranged around a sphere, one along each axis, each shaped like a parabolic disc. They were glorified projectors really—when complete, they would be tethered to each other, the discs turned inward, to focus the efforts of what would then be Governance's largest‐ever gravity generators.

And when it was all complete, they would open a gate, a true gate, of the kind physicists had once dreamed about.

"It is necessary, you know," Director Volokhov said, materializing at his side.

"Necessary to do what?" he asked, shaking his head at the AI's theatrical lack of context.

"To put it out here, in the depths of space."

Tao frowned, pondering what the AI meant. It was fairly well understood even among laymen that if you wanted to hide something, deep space was the place to do it. Even Governance couldn't begin to properly monitor the interstellar void. Still…

"Yes, of course," Tao said. "We don't know the full extent of the aliens' sensor capabilities, and we have to assume they're monitoring as much as they can in every one of our star systems. We can't risk the squid finding out that this project exists."

"I don't mean the aliens," Volokhov said.

Tao caught the allusion.

"Yes, that is another unsettling layer to this problem," he said, frowning.

He had been told that there might be other parties involved, parties who might have been watching the activity of prominent researchers across human space, who might have noticed right away if a number of them left their positions simultaneously.

Parties who might have sabotaged his lab on Eurydome.

"Do not think we are safe just because we are out here in the depths of space," Volokhov said. "Given the mystery of what happened to your lab, even the researchers and technicians arriving here are not above suspicion."

Tao thinned his lips.

"I thought that might be the case," he said. "It was not easy to miss the… enhanced telepathic screening protocols we were subjected to. I am not used to having someone rooting around in my mind like that. It was most unsettling. I am forced to admit that I am reassured they saw fit to tow you out here as well."

All of Adept Blue had been relocated, after all.

"I am reassured as well," Volokhov said. "Have you had a chance to look at any of the new security code? That sort of thing is not my specialty, but it was my own design. Well, I had some help from the Tactical Computer Clarisse, as well."

Tao tilted his head slightly, looking at the AI's avatar from the corner of his eye. This was an odd topic to choose, and an odd fact: Why exactly had Vlad and a TacComp designed new security code, rather than, say, a team of Governance specialists?

"I can't say I have," he said. "I'm not really a programmer myself. Few humans are."

"A pity. It was quite elegant. To us, it is almost like breathing."

They stood there a moment longer, a moment Tao spent watching the soft glow of something being tested, at the far bottom right of his screen. It wasn't something he knew too much about, as it was part of the facility's engine assembly—necessary to match velocities with their distant target, for optimal performance.

But there were specialists for that here, as there were for everything.

"I've thought of a name for the project, you know," Volokhov said. "I'll run it for approval later."

"Oh?" Tao asked, politely.

"Project Armstrong," he said. "You know, like that defense station on the moon, the one that used to be a science station. Armstrong had a famous line about mankind taking a giant leap, and I thought it would be a nice allusion."

Tao wrinkled his nose, wondering if this was meant to be some sort of pun.

"I know. I worked there, before the war."

"Did you? I never did understand why Governance thought it was so important to evacuate a station on the moon. Surely if the aliens ever got that far, one moon station wasn't going to stop them."

"That's what we told them. Apparently it made a difference in a number of simulated raid scenarios, depending on just how powerful alien blink capacity really was. For all we knew at the time, the range was unlimited, or at least even greater than what we're building here."

A beat of silence.

"Back to work, then?" Volokhov asked.

"I suppose."

"Ryouko‐chan isn't like that at all!" Sacnite insisted, making an angry expression as they stepped out of the theater.

Kuroi Nakase smiled, shaking her head as she patted the girl on the head.

"No, she isn't," she said. "But when they make movies, they have to make things more exciting, and the heroes more ideal people. They probably thought Ryouko‐chan was too quiet and bookish."

"She's cool the way she is, though," Sacnite insisted.

"Of course she is."

In truth, talking to Sacnite was a salve to the soul, after a searing movie experience that had started with being recognized and being applauded in the theater and ended with her gripping her seat in terror at combat scenes she knew were artificially generated.

Orpheus had affected her more than she cared to admit, seeing what she had intellectually known to be true acted out on screen by an actor with her daughter's face. It affected her because she knew it to be approximately true, because she knew what had happened on X‐25, because even now her daughter was far away from home, never truly out of danger.

Was it always like this, seeing someone precious to you treated like a movie star?

"Is that other girl really always in her head like that?" her other daughter asked, running to catch up to her. "Clarisse. I've never met her."

"I suppose so," she prevaricated.

In truth, Nakase didn't know that well. She knew about Clarisse, and they had even talked once or twice, but it was a difficult concept to wrap her head around, the idea of an AI in her daughter's head. She had not dared ask about it before—now she wondered how long it would be until she got a chance.

"I don't really know," she added, honestly. "Maybe we can talk to her the next time we see her."

"I'd like that."

Sacnite raised her arms to be picked up, and Nakase obliged, putting the girl on her shoulders. Taking care of her was an experience, since she could never be sure exactly what age the girl would act.

She realized that Sacnite was trying to turn to stare at something, so she turned her body to accommodate her.

She was watching a pair of women walking down the other side of the street. Nakase couldn't see anything unusual about them, other than that they seemed to be in a considerable hurry to go somewhere, and had evidently decided to walk instead of hailing a ride.

"Are you sure about this?" Sacnite thought, transmitting one woman's voice to Nakase. "After what we heard? It could go very poorly. I know we're giving her a choice, but…"

Nakase couldn't help but think the voice sounded familiar.

One of the women stopped, looking directly across the street at Nakase, who couldn't resist glancing around to make sure they were in a public area.

The woman made a hand signal, causing the other woman to stop as well. They made eye contact with Nakase, before moving to a designated crossing area.

Nakase shifted Sacnite's weight on her shoulders and leaned against a wall, deciding she might as well see what this was about. Needless to say, Sacnite's transmission was unsettling. Had she tapped into their thoughts? What was she capable of? What did they want?

The two women arrived at her location about a minute later, and Nakase took a second to take in their appearances, and consult her nomenclator. Nothing remarkable about them—two local women out for a stroll.

Sacnite, however, was staring at both of them intently. That, plus what she had gleaned from her sister over the past century about nomenclators, put her on edge.

Sacnite surprised her, though, by shifting off of her shoulders, using the wall to land adroitly on the floor.

"Meiqing," she said, grabbing one of the women's legs. "And, um, Aunt Nana?"

"Tch, I thought raising my age would be a good disguise," the first woman said, putting her hand to her head. "But can't fool her."

"Nee‐chan?" Nakase asked, looking at the other woman. She was used by now to her sister wearing disguises on occasion, but the woman looked sad, perhaps even worried about something.

"Let's go somewhere private," she said. "We need to talk."

"Are you really sure about this?" Shizuki Sayaka asked, peering over her sunglasses. "She's your family technically, but, well, I don't need to tell you about the risks involved. The booby traps that might be set for the unwary."

She let her admonition drop there, and her counterpart inclined her head slightly, flipping the page of her stylishly old‐fashioned dinner menu.

"Of course you don't," Kuroi Kana said. "I have seen memories lost, entire personalities rewritten, but in the end the soul remembers. Even for a non‐magical girl. Hopefully it doesn't come to that, but even in the worst case we have specialists that could bring her back. Like you implied, she's a Kuroi. I wouldn't spare any resources."

"And I suppose you and Chitose‐san would know the best telepathic specialists to avoid a problem in the first place," Sayaka said.

"Yes," Kana said, mildly.

She paused for a moment when the sommelier arrived, squinting politely at the label even though they both knew damn well nothing here would ever be bad.

Even with implant translation, she doubted the sommelier would have eavesdropped on their Japanese; it would have been rude, if nothing else. Still, it paid to be a little careful.

"Do you think we should tell Ryouko‐chan?" Sayaka asked, picking an olive out of the snack tray. "It has to do with her, after all."

"Let's spare her that for now," Kana said. "If all goes well, I hope Nakase‐chan can tell her herself."

Sayaka nodded.

"Still, she is a Kuroi," Kana said, sighing and reaching for an olive herself. "I don't like doing something like this. But we can't just not look. Not anymore. There's too much going on, with this Simona girl you found."

Sayaka nodded again, clasping her hands together on the table. The TCF details were too sensitive for Kana to talk about aloud, even in this context.

"We have to look," she said.