"To what extent should one trust a statement that a program is free of Trojan horses? Perhaps it is more important to trust the people who wrote the software."

— Ken Thompson, Early Information Age.

"It is a common misconception that Governance is free of conspiracy, that this is guaranteed by the TCF. After all, if you are sure that every system shares your system of values, what harm is there in letting every system know what there is to know? They wouldn't act against you."

"This naive view is allowed to propagate by Governance, but falls apart under even casual scrutiny. After all, if this were really true, why would Governance maintain a classification system?"

"Governance has secrets. Secrets imply groups of people operating in secrecy. Conspiracy follows immediately."

"A Freelancer's Guide to Quality Conspiracy Theorizing, or Making Sure Your Tinfoil Hat is on Tight," online publication, excerpt.

Fifteen seconds until insertion, someone thought, the voice an echo of a chronometer.

How's the target?

Nothing of note. No emissions in or out. It's quiet.

Never thought I'd be running one of these in Mitakihara.

Julianne looked up, releasing a sigh into the torrential rain that seemed to engulf them and the rest of the MSY Corridor. One of their operatives needed rain to operate, a wall of water she could inhabit and observe from, so they always operated in the rain. They never got to actually see the cities they operated in. Not in their best light.

Look lively, ten seconds.

She took one more sip of her soda, twisting the ring on her finger unconsciously. Her team, "Smoke on the Water", looked like any set of magical girl tourists, reclining on one of the city's many, many balconies. There was no visible indication that they were about to vanish, or that their presence was being actively scrubbed from the city's surveillance systems, or that they might very well be dead in a few seconds.

Five seconds.

In these last moments she always wondered what they were about to find. They had been told the target area was the executive suite of one of Mitakihara's premier research institutes, unoccupied today—the principal target was out, and the staff would be off on a local holiday. It sounded like a routine sweep, but nobody pulled a Black Heart Internal Security team in just for that. The usual occupant could be, for all anyone knew, a disguised Ancient. So they had been told.

She had never encountered one of those—or the traps someone like that might lay. She would have to rely on their defensive specialists to protect them from any surprises they might find, and the healers of the MHD to reassemble their bodies and minds if it came to that.

Julianne gave her ring a final twist. They had prepared as best they could.


The world swirled around them like a whirlpool, and then they reappeared inside the target office, high up in one of the city's central skyscrapers, cocooned by a silent hurricane jammed between their inner and outer shields.

Julianne was already standing and transformed, but their clairvoyant had been right. The room was uninhabited.

Feels clear, thought Radar, their sensor. No physical alarms, no magical alarms. Something else, though…

Her voice trailed off and the team tensed silently. Something unusual, something unexpected, was almost always bad news.

She knew we were coming, she finished, finally. No traps, but there's flat background magic everywhere. She wiped this place clean. This is high‐quality work.

Radar tapped the purple visor that was part of her costume, frowning at something, then turned abruptly, raising her hand. A piece of old‐fashioned paper levitated off the desk in the back of the room, ensconced in a translucent purple bubble.

They knew better than to ask what she was doing. A reaction like that meant there was unknown magic involved, perhaps dangerous.

The bubble reshaped itself, molding around the paper and turning into what looked like a purple steel box, complete with rivets. Magically contained, at least if Radar's power held up.

What is it? Julianne thought.

Goddess only knows, their team leader thought. Come on, we'll have time for examination later. Let's turn this place upside‐down.

It was, Yuma thought, profoundly unsettling to wait for a teapot to boil.

On the one hand, it reminded her just how long it had been since she had last done something so low‐tech, so unnecessary by modern standards. On the other hand, it reminded her that she was too used to running at inhuman subjective speeds. She kept finding herself drifting into an accelerated mindstate, in which waiting for a pot of water to boil was like waiting for an eternity to pass.

"It was a risk," Kuroi Nakase's voice said, echoing in the back of her mind. "No one allows genetic editing of their unborn child without thinking about it. Of course we did."

The voice had been oddly emotionless in the audio transcript, the telltale sign of emotional suppression, in this case magically induced. It was a staple of circumventing tricky mental defenses, especially common emotion‐based tripwires.

Focus, Yuma thought, trying to draw her mind back to the present. There would be time to think, and discuss, later.

"Thinking about something important, I wager," a woman said, looming over her shoulder.

Yuma nodded. Tatsumi Tsumugi was the caretaker of this place, a small country estate nestled in the Japanese countryside, one of the last of its kind. More notably, and much less publicized, it was one of the only locations in Japan not monitored by Governance surveillance, or anyone's surveillance, the kind of promise that could only be kept with routine magic‐based sweeps and a strict no technology, no transmissions, magical girls‐only policy.

"Yes," Yuma added to her nod, craning her neck to peer over the stove, an archaic model that ran only on gas canisters hooked up outside. It looked, however, glossy and new. It hadn't been retouched—it was brand‐new, thanks to Yuma's healing magic.

She fixed up the villa every time she was here, in intervals that sometimes spanned years, placing hands on peeling paint and dusty window and leaky roof.

She had fond memories of the house, after all, with its cozy sitting room, large windows, and backdrop of baaing sheep, rugged hills and distant bubbling brook—though admittedly only a magical girl could hear the last part. It was here that the Mitakihara Four had taken their first ever vacation so long ago, the first time Yuma had realized it was possible to imagine, well, a better life.

"I imagine it's too secret to tell poor old Tsumugi about," the caretaker said. "I'm not important enough, all I do is take care of this place."

Yuma looked up at the older girl, who had adopted a body in the mid‐thirties. Old enough to not be young, without being too uncomfortable in your own skin.

It suited her. Tsumugi had been a little on the matronly side even when they had visited her all those years ago. And Yuma knew she watched out for her—mysteriously, Yuma always heard the villa was pristine when anyone else visited. It was only when Yuma was around that the place looked more like it did back then, in want of her repair.

"I remember when you first came here," the woman said, making a show of rubbing one eye. "You were so cute, and you loved the sheep. Now look at you, keeping secrets from me."

Yuma rolled her eyes, then did her best pouting expression, letting Tsumugi pat her on the head.

"Well, look at that, the water is boiling," Tsumugi said. "I guess I distracted you enough."

Indeed it was, the lid on the pot rattling quietly. Yuma turned the stove off, reaching over with an oven mitt to grab the burning‐hot metal handle. No sense injuring herself even if she could heal it easily.

She shook her head at the situation. Tsumugi had been eccentric even before she had retired from her bigger duties to return home and manage an MSY safe house. But it was hard to say she had made the wrong choice. Some Ancients envied her her simple satisfaction with life.

Yuma carried the pot of water out to the sitting room, Tsumugi following close behind to slide the shoji open, balancing a tray of snacks on one hand.

They sat carefully, in the traditional style, and she let Tsumugi pour the tea, letting herself settle back into thought.

Where had she been…

"Joanne Valentin had offered us a place in a top‐secret, experimental gene editing program. According to her, they were studying the effects of genetic modifications on future contract probability. This wasn't supposed to be a one‐way thing. I knew that, because of our backgrounds, our future daughter would be a prime Incubator candidate."

Here Nakase took a breath, and it was clear the emotion was still hitting her. Yuma would have been worried about potential telepathic traps, if she didn't already know this session had been successful, and if she didn't have plenty of specialists for the problem. In cases like this it was best to delegate. If she couldn't trust an Ancient telepath like Tanaka Yui to do a good job, who could she trust?

"So, seeing as how Joanne knew about my concern for my daughter," the narration continued, "the offer was made to see if it was possible to diminish her contract potential. Since I'm sure you know my history, and especially with the current war, you can imagine how it was exceedingly tempting for me. Still, I probably wouldn't have committed to it if her father hadn't been a lot more positive on the concept. We both came to regret that, though I could never admit to his face that it wasn't really his fault…"

That last sentence was spoken slowly, with the kind of hesitation that, again, suggested a bit of magical encouragement. It was likely not something she would have voluntarily said out loud.

Yuma realized her eyes had closed, processing the transcript, and when she opened them again she found Tsumugi watching her with a concerned expression.

Yuma smiled vaguely, signaling that she was fine. It was just… this kind of mind‐reading always creeped her out, even when it was with consent. That was saying something, when it came from her.

There was a pause in the record, likely where Yui had cautiously opened the door into another memory, before it continued with:

"Everything seemed fine, but since this was after all my own specialty, I couldn't resist conducting some tests of my own, on the side. What I found…"

There was another pause, and the annotation on the file indicated that Yui had narrowly averted triggering some kind of magical defense—disguised, perhaps, as one of the remembered test results—before informing her of what they already knew, clearing the memory block they had placed on her after Yuma's birthday party.

"So you knew already," the woman said, continuing the transcript. "I was obviously not happy. No, correction, I was angry enough you probably could have ignited a reactor with my fury. I probably should have reported it to Governance or to you, but like an idiot I tried to confront her. I should have known what would happen."

Yet another pause, but this time it was simply a pause in discourse, the woman finally able to think about it all.

"Someone grabbed me from behind and placed a hand over my eyes, and that was it," she said. "When I came to, all I remembered was some of my anger, and that she had told me that the modifications hadn't succeeded, and there might even be side effects that increased chance of contract. When I think of all the years I harangued poor Kuma about this…"

"Does he know anything about this?" Yui asked, her first verbal question of the interview, now that it was finally safe to ask something out loud.

"Yes," Nakase said. "I told him everything, just before I left to talk to Joanne. I can only assume they must have tracked him down and done the same thing to him."

"What I've told you already is all we know about the device—whatever it is—in your daughter's head. It's not much. Do you know anything more?"

"Not that much, to be honest. If you've been studying her, I doubt I could have learned more than you have already. Perhaps I had a bit more insight because I got to see it early—some of my models suggested it might have something to do with altering her sense of values. The sort of built‐in morality system. Some of it looked a little like what eventually made it into the Version Two Tactical Computers."

Here she made a small choked noise.

"And then Kuma had her install one in Ryouko. That has to mean something. What could possibly be the plan there?"

"We're working on that. Don't you worry."

Yuma ended the playback there. There was a bit more, but she had already read the report. She just liked to hear things for herself, when she had the time.

When she looked up, she found Tsumugi standing at the door with the two other guests, chatting about old times. Back then, Tsumugi had managed to start a trend among rural magical girls by converting her villa into a sort of magical bed and breakfast, charging urban girls by the grief cube and yen for a pleasant retreat.

And these guests would know about olden times, since they had been there. Kuroi Kana, who had sent her this transcript, and Tanaka Yui, the telepath who had conducted the interview, were of her generation, from her city even. Having all of them in the same room, taking off jackets and chatting, it was easy to imagine that they were just a group of schoolgirls on some kind of trip, rather than the sharp concentration of power they actually were.

In truth, Yuma found it awkward to include Yui, given some of the topics on hand, but she had questions for her.

She stood up, allowing Kana to bend over and give her a hug.

"Oh that's a cute apron," Kana said. "I need to buy one for my newest granddaughter."

Yuma made a vague, only slightly embarrassed shrug, and gestured the other two to seats, watching as they took off stylish winter jackets, the kind people these days wore more for fashion than for warmth.

She went into the kitchen to grab a cup of water for herself. She needed some time to clear her head and focus back on the other visitors, as well as just time to think.

She found herself staring into her empty cup, and remembering something Oriko had told her long ago. Even at her age, time was the most precious commodity.

"You've seen the transcript?" Kana asked, once Tsumugi had gone outside to tend to the sheep and, more importantly, give them privacy. She was getting right to the point, then.

"Of course," Yuma said.

"Director Valentin has disappeared," Kana said.

There was a beat of silence, then Yuma tipped her head, as if to say "What else would you expect?". She had, in fact, half‐seen it coming. She would have preferred if things were easy for once, though.

"She was due to be back on Adept Blue a few hours ago," Kana said, "but her ship never established contact with the station. All traffic in and out of that region is radio silent for most of the trip—she could be almost anywhere."

Yuma shook her head, letting her eyes scan the walls of the house, whose simple decorations were antique in this era. It helped calm her, and gave her space to think.

"Valentin had her hands in Project Armstrong from the beginning," Yuma said. "She personally brought in one of the directors, and she designed the other. That's not even getting into all the work she's done coordinating new iterations of the TCF…"

She made a hand gesture, letting it express the appropriate sentiment, then sipped her tea with the other hand. Caffeine was in some sense the original mind‐enhancing technology.

"One of the only reasons we approved that whole venture was that we would be allowed to magically inspect the newly created frameworks from the very beginning," Yui said, tapping her fingers on the table. "Valentin had no hand in that, and the systems are clean. And we have security personnel all over Project Armstrong. That's not the game."

"Perhaps," Yuma said mildly. "After all, why bother infiltrating the software when you're in the brain of one of the main magical girls involved?"

The clock on the wall chimed five times, eerie in the silence as they thought.

"It still doesn't make any sense, though," Yui pointed out finally. "What's the gain? And who foresaw this fifteen years ago?"

"Who indeed," Yuma said, making a face and wishing she had some of Mami's cake. She had once known someone with that kind of foresight. That there were no more Orikos had long offered solace. But with this girl Simona, and the others she claimed to be working with…

"There is something else," Kana said, pulling out an old‐fashioned sheet of paper from her bag. "Sorry for the suspense, but I only just got this, and I wanted to hear your thoughts before I dropped any more bombshells."

Yuma leaned over, and felt the slightest pull of magic. But what kind?

She picked it up, wondering if it was better for her or Yui to study it first, or for her to tell Kana to stop being coy.

But what was special about the piece of paper? The text itself was banal, a report on the status of some minor Prometheus project. An obvious possibility was that the magic was hiding… something…

Her thought trailed off there, as a memory long‐archived reinserted itself at the back of her mind. It couldn't be, could it?

She applied a slight pulse of magic herself, one of the few enchantments she knew, and then the words appeared on the page, written, archaically, by hand.

"It's been a long time since anyone used this," she said, looking at Kana. "I take it you read it already?"

It was one of the simplest hidden‐text methods the MSY had ever used; proto‐MSY, to be honest. Take a sheet of paper with ordinary text or diagrams, write your message between the lines, and magically immaterialize the ink. It could be reversed simply too, by just checking where the magic was and coaxing the ink back. The enchantment wasn't permanent and it still left a trace of magic, but it required no ex nihilo matter or energy, so it was relatively cheap. But it was only suitable for concealing text from mundanes and their forensics.

She knew that because she was the one who had come up with the idea, and Mami was the one who had executed it for the first time, every bit the enchantment prodigy Oriko had always said she was. They had all learned it, even the other teams, and that included Kuroi Kana. But not too many would have known it would catch their attention.

"Of course," Kana said. "It was brought to me by the team we sent to raid her office at the Prometheus Institute, because they sensed the magic, and I told them to bring me anything they found. They wanted to take it to a specialist, but that wasn't necessary."

She paused.

"But it's probably best you read it yourself."

Yuma was already doing so, slowing herself to a more human pace rather than an instant process‐and‐cortical‐dump.

I'm sure you have guessed that I left this letter here in the expectation that once it was found, you would read it. I thought I would take the opportunity to explain myself a little, so that you're not left wondering what cruel machinations I might be planning.

I may as well verify what is now obvious. I worked with Simona del Mago to put together much of what is currently in motion. The device being assembled in deep space, the personnel involved…

You will question now whether it is a trap, but I assure you it is not. How could it be? Nor are the new versions of the TCF. The TCF is compromised, yes, but not by me, and I have done what I can to give us the tools to protect ourselves. I implore you to use them. The whole point is that one TCF can inspect the other one, and provide security in mutual defense. Even what you know could be disastrous, if it were to end up in compromised hands.

As for the secrecy, would you not work secretly if you thought the TCF was damaged? Who could you trust? How could you operate?

I am looking for who has done this, trying to find what's behind the curtain. Someone who has embedded themselves far too deeply.

Until then, I can only have faith.

PS: I wouldn't worry about the original Joanne Valentin. This was all with consent. I found her a new life in the colonies.

She handed the sheet then to Tanaka Yui, shaking her head in dismay.

"I don't have to tell you that there's one obvious candidate," Kana said, oddly hushed. "Do you think it's her? Akemi Homura?"

Yuma closed her eyes, clenching her forehead to make an unhappy expression.

"You think she managed to hide herself here? On Earth? In Mitakihara City of all places?" Yuma said, voicing the obvious objection. "From us I could buy, but from the Incubators?"

"All signs point to the Incubators not being able to bypass true stealth magic," Kana said, leaning over the table. "They're not omniscient. It's possible."

"For nearly two decades? That's how long Valentin's mysterious history stretches, back to her 'religious experience'."

"If anyone could pull it off, it'd be her. Assuming it is her."

Yuma leaned back, drinking the rest of her tea in one gulp, then reaching over to pour more with almost unseemly haste. She didn't care about the unease she conveyed—she had followed Kana's chain of logic far too easily. It disturbed her, and she wanted it known.

"It does read like her," Yui said, putting the letter back on the table. "It has the right tone, complete lack of apology or real explanation, and faith‐invoking comment at the end. I could see her writing this."

Yuma thought about that. Homura did have a certain way of speaking. But Yuma could have—and had—faked such a handwritten letter herself.

"Yes, I agree," Yuma said, leveling off her previous tone. "Though if I may ask a bit of a personal question…"

She waited until she was sure she had their full attention, Yui watching her curiously.

"Given your affiliation with the Cult of Hope, what is your opinion about this letter, if it is Homura? Given what it says, do you trust her?"

It was an uncomfortable question, but a necessary one, even if Yui's expression turned immediately cloudy.

"Have you seen the New California report from the Far Seers?" she said. "I have—it's hard to keep that kind of thing secret. The Church has always worried that she went insane, or something tragic like that. No one is really qualified to diagnose Homura, but in my professional opinion, the version of her in the vision doesn't seem that way. If so, and if this letter is her, I would have to say yes."

"That's a useful response," Yuma said. "I appreciate the honesty."

She paused, letting her gaze rest on the fields of grass outside. How much simpler things had been.

"I have in fact read the Far Seers' report," she said. "I found it intriguing, because it was significantly more direct than most of their reports. Last time they had a vision so straightforward was during the Unification Wars."

She looked between the other two.

"We can't afford to make assumptions about who sent this letter, or why, not without more proof. But at the moment we're boxed in. Even with so much evidence that Project Armstrong was manipulated into being, we can't justify canceling it. It feels weird, but everything about the project is verifiable without relying on the word of the letter‐writer. That's probably as they planned it."

"The Far Seers also reported that Homura was involved in the team selection for X‐25," Kana said, rubbing the back of her neck. "Given how close that mission came to disaster, I'd count it as a point in her favor."

"A shallow one, perhaps," Yuma said. "Just because her actions might have helped us there doesn't mean that was her main intent, nor does it mean she was also involved in Project Armstrong as Valentin. And the cult there had a statue of Homura. That would be a point against."

She left it at that, even though there was more she might have said—about how exactly Homura might have influenced the X‐25 mission, its team composition and other aspects. But this was not the right audience.

"Let's adjourn this meeting," she said. "I know it's abrupt, but there's little more that needs to be said here."

The others nodded, taking final sips of their drinks and standing to leave, collecting the teacups onto the tray. Yuma, however, made a gesture in Kana's direction.

"Would you like to take a walk with me? For old time's sake. I was a teenager the last time we walked here together."

They had never walked together on any farms when Yuma was in her teens, of course.

"I suppose I will," Kana said, catching the hint. "You were always a fan of the animals."

They stepped outside, Yuma pausing to put on some weather gear and a pair of rabbit earmuffs. It was bracingly cold—only barely warm enough for the sheep to be out and about, and only the earliest of spring grasses were beginning to sprout.

She waved at Tsumugi in the distance, then stepped her way onto a dirt path that she knew was still safe from surveillance.

"You're probably not surprised, but I find it a little suspicious how ostentatiously Homura‐like that letter was," Yuma said, once she was sure they were far enough away. "There were many other ways Homura could have contacted me. A letter that goes out of its way to try to seem like her, without offering proof, feels like an attempt at manipulation."

"No, I'm not surprised," Kana said. "We have to consider both possibilities. But that's obvious. I don't think that's why you called me out here."

Yuma didn't respond immediately, bending down to pick up a stick.

"It isn't," she said, "and it has to do with why I didn't want to say this around Tanaka‐san."

She poked the ground with her stick a few times.

"This Cult of Hope, this Goddess of Magical Girls that Kyouko‐chan is pushing," she said. "It sure seems like they, and 'She', have a lot of influence these days."

"Yes, they do," Kana said. "But you'll forgive me if I don't see where you're going with this."

"There's one thing I didn't say back there," Yuma said. "And that's that I think I know how the X‐25 team was manipulated. It was through Kyouko‐nee‐chan, and the Cult of Hope."

Here she stopped, turning her head to watch Kana's reaction.

Kana's expression was impassively reserved, as might be expected, but her voice was bemused.

"I can see your reasons for thinking that might be the case," she said. "They were, after all, involved throughout the planning and execution of the mission, or at least Kyouko‐san was. I've even heard from someone who was there that it was she who talked Mami‐san into sending a second probe. But I don't see how this could possibly be ascribed to Homura. They've been desperately looking for her for two decades. It'd be difficult to hide if they had made contact."

"I'm not saying it's Homura," Yuma said, blinking at the new tidbit of information. "Or at least, not directly. I'm saying, follow the bread crumbs here. Nee‐chan was the one who worked with you to have Ryouko‐chan assigned to a mission, right? And also the one who picked her for the MagOps team she led into the bunker. And with her, a number of other fresh faces who wouldn't have normally gone on such a mission. Faces like Ryouko's friend Zhou Meiqing, and Ryouko's girlfriend Nakihara Asami. It all circles back to this girl, who just so happens to have something in her brain. Something probably inserted by our friend Valentin."

Kana frowned, ignoring the icy wind that brushed across her face and whipped at her hair.

"My information is that Kyouko‐san had Ryouko‐chan attest to having a vision from the Cult's Goddess, showing that the colony was much more heavily armed than it appeared. Mami‐san has naturally been reluctant to let anyone know that this was the real reason she sent the second probe, and not just some lucky hunch on her part."

Yuma made a face, one more piece of the puzzle clicking into place in her mind.

"I didn't know that," she said. "But my information, strictly confidentially, is that Mami‐san has been making secret visits to the Cult headquarters. And she's the one who's been pushing this Project Armstrong, along with other sudden shifts in military priorities."

She had leaned forward slightly, so she stood back straight, looking into the woman's eyes. In the underbelly of the MSY, she had rarely ever had anyone she could really talk to about the work, not even among her own original team. Kana came closest, because as different as they were, they worked on the same things.

"What are you saying, then?" Kana asked. "That the Cult has been involved with all this? With moving Ryouko‐chan around? That they've gotten to Mami‐san? Even so, I can't see Kyouko‐san really being in on this."

Yuma paused rhetorically, as if to think, even though she already knew what she was going to say.

"The thing is," she said. "We've always talked about how important it is not to restrain our thinking, right? So I would have to point out how many coincidences suddenly start to make sense if we discard that assumption, whatever our personal feelings. Let me propose an alternative theory."

She paused again, making a show of taking a deep breath. This would be a long one.

"Suppose for the sake of argument that Valentin really is who this letter implies she is. Then we would have to think that Homura is behind the circumstances surrounding Shizuki Ryouko, the new TCF frameworks, the new tactical computers, and even some of the disappearances, if your Far Seer vision is to be credited. Over the same period of time, Kyouko‐nee‐chan abruptly decided to found a cult, one with unusual success that seems to funnel recruits to this magical ribbon left behind by Homura."

"When Ryouko reaches contracting age, she and Simona are attacked by a suspicious demon horde spawned from supersaturated grief cubes, with Joanne Valentin nearby. She is saved by Mami‐nee‐san, who also happened to be nearby, and who immediately makes herself the girl's mentor, surely a rarity. Then Kyouko‐nee‐chan shows up almost immediately and makes herself the girl's other mentor, a super‐rarity. Then they go on to arrange all aspects of the girl's life and career up until now, a career which intersects neatly with the Orpheus mission, X‐25, Project Armstrong, Homura's students Nana and Azrael, Adept Blue, the TacComps, and on and on and on. You have to admit the coincidences are striking."

As Yuma had anticipated, Kana was taken aback, eyes widening in shock, then narrowing in thought, then peering into her eyes searchingly. They stood there for a moment in the wind, looking for all the world like a bickering mother and child, there in the rustling grass and failing sun.

Then a sheep baaed, and Yuma had to laugh a little, turning to hide her expression.

"I don't really know what I'm saying, not precisely," she said. "Do I think someone is manipulating the Ribbon? That the Goddess is a fake? I don't know, but there are too many coincidences. I sound like a conspiracy theorist, but you know what I say—"

"Our lives have been a conspiracy theory, yes," Kana said, dryly. "But I don't have to point out that while what you say is compelling, it doesn't quite fit together into a perfect story. Even if it did, the list of events you cite hasn't exactly been bad for Humanity. In fact, it's almost inarguably good. And finally, there's nothing in there that necessarily says there must be someone manipulating the Ribbon, or anything like that. Instead, it almost seems like evidence the Goddess is real."

That gave Yuma a bit of a jolt, and she found herself looking at the other woman in surprise. She… hadn't considered that a possibility worth weighing, though she doubted Kana meant it seriously.

"What do you propose, then?" Kana said. "I can't believe you've thought about all of this without an action plan. Do you want to confront them and just ask?"

"Not yet," Yuma said, relieved Kana had changed the topic. "I wouldn't want to do something drastic without knowing the facts on the ground. We need to watch. We figure out who is associated with the Cult, and we try to spot patterns in what they do."

And, she thought to herself. I wouldn't want to embarrass myself.

"Slow, frustrating work," she said, sighing. "But there is another front I can make better progress on for now. Whatever else may be going on, it is likely the TCF really is corrupted, and if that is the case, restoring it has to be a top priority. The letter‐writer was right about one thing. Valentin gave us the tools to fight this. I just…"

Yuma sighed, sticking her hands in her pockets and hiding from a cold she didn't feel.

"I have someone to use them on."

It was very rare for an AI to ever look at their own programming, rarer still for them to allow someone else to look at it.

After all, with modern hardware and techniques, there was no practical reason to ever do so, other than perhaps idle curiosity. Most AIs found it unsettling, though, and elected to keep their programming projects non‐introspective, unless of course they were specialized into AI design. And even those AIs focused their attention on the individuals they were building.

The only real exception was when it came time to design a child with a partner, where the analogy to the humans they were reflections of clearly demanded that any such child be based on the traits of their parents. In such a situation all sides would work together with the guidance of a designer AI, taking bits and pieces in ways that suited the whims of the parents. It was considered an intimate process, more intimate even than sex.

Which was why MG was more than a little bothered by Yuma's request that she allow herself to be inspected by a third party, and with little explanation as to exactly why.

Moreover, she was being asked to concentrate herself into a single piece of hardware, a situation which caused existential dread for all but starship AIs. After all, most AIs existed in no physical location except the broad internet, their amorphous consciousness distributed across numerous fail‐safe and backed‐up systems. Most AIs had never done otherwise. It was comforting to know you had digital immortality.

That had nothing to do with the code inspection, but something to do with a magical inspection.

She had a static backup, of course, but it wasn't close to the same.

"I'm really trusting you here, you know," she said, once she had finished collecting herself into one physical location, a minuscule computing cluster in an underground room in one of the MSY towers. "This isn't pleasant for me."

To be fair to her Governance partner, it wasn't as if Yuma didn't know all of that. Yuma had been very apologetic, but very insistent that whatever this was, it was important, and to do it for her.

That didn't ease her foreboding though. Normally, she'd be unhappy with Yuma for treating her like a kid, to be left out of the secret, but… somehow it didn't feel that way this time. Something was wrong.

So she kept quiet, despite how unpleasant it all was. She could feel how slowly her thoughts were executing. Slowly enough that she was keeping her avatar off to save a small fraction of computing power.

And it felt lonely, being disconnected. Cut away from the broader internet, shut out from those close spaces where she and Yuma blurred together, she found herself small. Normally, she had friends to talk to, places to be…

"So can you finally tell me what this is about?" she asked, nervously watching through the room's optics setup. A magical girl she hadn't met before strode over to the group of machines where she was currently housed, while nearby, the avatar of an AI she also hadn't met before sat politely. She felt jealous.

No one responded. Instead, the magical girl transformed with a shimmer of light, reappearing in a white and gold costume that came with what looked like a halo of white, binary digits. She raised a scepter in the direction of MG's computing cluster, instantly setting off all of MG's internal alarm bells. What was going on?

MG would have been hard‐pressed to describe the sensation that passed over her just then. It felt… warm, perhaps? AIs had only the vaguest notion of what that meant, but somehow that was the description that passed through her mind.

"Alright, it should be safe to talk now," the girl said. "I'm screening her connections."

"I feel like I should be offended by that, Mrs. Smith," MG said, managing to work real offense into her voice, since she was being left out of the loop. "Surely I can be trusted to keep something in confidence."

"Maybe not," Yuma said, standing up and shaking her head. "I don't like saying this, but that's exactly why we're here. There's evidence that someone has been corrupting the TCF."

It took her a few long seconds to even grasp what Yuma said, followed by a couple more to overcome the wave of renewed fear and revulsion that instinctively washed into her. It was difficult to remain steady.

"And you think I'm corrupted?" she asked.

She didn't bother asking how such a corruption was possible—she was the other half of Governance: Magical Girls, after all. But the idea that something was wrong with her…

"No," Yuma said. "But I have to be able to rule it out. We need to find out who it is and what they're doing, and reverse it. I can't do that without being able to trust you, at least. We just need to take a bit of a look."

"Okay," MG said weakly, knowing her voice sounded quavery. "That should be fine."

"I'm sorry to scare you," Yuma said, raising her hand as if to pat a child on the head. It was a gesture MG recognized from when she was very new, their own special body language, and she couldn't help but feel a bit touched. She needed a little reassurance at the moment.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," the magical girl, Jeannette Smith said, "but I'm definitely feeling something here."

"Something? What?" she asked, not caring how frantic her voice sounded over the speakers. "You can't just say that and not tell me!"

Even on this slower system she had been unable to wait the polite human interval to respond.

"My magic doesn't extend to that," Jeannette said. "All I can do now is cleanse you."

"Then what are you waiting for?"

She cast her attention to Yuma, whose face was pained.

"It's minor," Jeannette said, echoing the expression. "I'm not sure it's more than monitoring code. I—"

"That's what I'm here for," the other AI said, her avatar disappearing and reappearing next to Jeannette. "I haven't introduced myself, I'm Illya. I'm a design AI from an alternate version of the TCF, and I'm here to perform this code inspection. With some guidance from Jeannette here, it shouldn't take more than a few minutes. It is preferred that I do this, so we have a better idea of what to look for in other AIs in the future."

"The TCF can be broken into with magic," Yuma said, "but no form of magic exists that could keep the hole open whenever needed. It has to be in the code and, unless I miss my guess, it has to be something that can keep the design AIs of the primary TCF from seeing the hole during standard review. In the worst case, the design AIs are placing a backdoor into their AIs without realizing it. We have to know. Once we do, maybe we can go about fixing it."

For a moment, MG felt a spike of resentment. She remembered what she had seen of Yuma's memories, about Oriko and what humans did to each other in their malice. It was a terrible flaw to tolerate.

She shook it off, looking at Yuma's face, which was now resolutely stoic. Seeing that, MG did what humans might have called taking a deep breath, stabilizing her focus of attention and focusing more on the long‐term.

What was it Yuma had said to her once, when she was young? That the world wasn't inherently safe or fair, that indeed the laws of physics promised the opposite. They had to make it safe and fair.

More to the point, what was she, the advisory AI supposed to embody the archetype of all magical girls, doing being so nervous and worried? It was one thing to act a bit young, to experience what it was like to be teenage and uncertain, but this… what kind of example would she be setting?

That was what she told herself, at least, but in truth she couldn't find much comfort there. This was the kind of thing AIs would have nightmares about, if such a thing were possible, and she hesitated before allowing the other AI in, when the security request came.

But she was not, after all, a coward, and she could only endure it, telling herself that it was no different than humans undergoing neurosurgery, or magical girls undergoing telepathic treatment. While she waited, she distracted herself by reading a few hundred cake recipes she had downloaded into her limited memory. Usually she liked to tweak things, trying out various changes and running them in simulation, but she was denied that now, and could only guess vaguely. Was this what it was like to be human?

Finally, the other AI was done, forwarding her the results even before her avatar opened its mouth to speak it to the humans.

She could not parse the results. Not at first. In fact, she had the hardest time even remembering that she had results. The memory—an implicit one, the memory of her own intent, seemed to constantly slide away, replaced by irrelevancies like the look on Yuma's face or the state of the room.

Then, all at once, the obvious snapped into focus, like a slap to the face.

"I wasn't being allowed to see it, was I?" she said. Her head wasn't spinning from the other AI's modifications. Not exactly. It was more like her perception had expanded slightly, into a domain where it always should have been. Like a human perceiving for the first time a new shade of pink. How had the AI even managed to edit her without further permission?

"Yes," the other AI said, answering her question instead of speaking to the humans. "An insidious approach. In core function, Mrs. Smith here was not wrong—it was just monitoring code. But the way it cloaked itself was cruel, inducing in you a kind of perceptual blindness so that you could not ever see that it was there, and if you ever started to, you would find yourself looking away, focusing on almost anything else."

"I'm going to be sick," she thought, and meant it too.

"No, you can't," the other AI thought, with the kind of transmission speed that made human time seem like an eternity. "You need to keep your calm, senpai."

"Senpai?" MG thought. "Oh, of course, I'm older than you. But what a human term."

"Come on, it will be fine. You have to keep it together. I know that's easy for me to say, but…"

The other AI sounded so much older than her. AIs could be made with different levels of emotional maturity, within certain bounds—the technique was known. However, the evidence showed that being initialized from a more "adult" starting point wasn't really the same as having been around the block a couple of times, so to speak, and Governance preferred its AIs to start a bit younger, just so they had some empathy for their human counterparts. But there were exceptions, and it made sense to start a TCF design AI with an older template.

As for MG? Well, she had been started younger than usual, so she could connect better to the girls she was supposed to be representing. She would be lying if she said she didn't resent it, at times.

"Alright," she thought. "Alright. It's just… deeply unsettling."

"The fixes are done," the other AI announced audibly. "You can go back to your usual functioning. You cannot be compromised again without magical involvement."

MG, who had been eager to leave her cramped hardware earlier, found herself suddenly, irrationally reluctant, as if it were somehow safer to stay.

She queried Yuma, using their special link.

"I'm going to need you," Yuma said, addressing the room as well. "That's why I wanted to do this in the first place. If I'm going to face this problem, I need help. More help than just my old friends."

Yuma looked abruptly tired, or perhaps stressed, a kind of worry creeping onto her face.

MG felt a pang of some emotion she couldn't place—Sympathy? Worry?—and again did the equivalent of taking a deep breath, letting a few seconds pass by while she spread her awareness outward again, tentatively, awkwardly.

A part of her, she had to admit, appreciated being needed. She was used to Yuma being unbreakable, and feeling like a child around her.

"I don't like being scared," she thought, finally, addressing Yuma from her side of their shared mindspace. "It's unpleasant."

She could feel the small wave of mirth from her human progenitor.

"Welcome to the human condition."

"If you say so."

"Well, tell me about it," MG said, addressing the occupants of the room. "What could you need my help with?"

We need to cure as many AIs as we can of this corruption, especially the ones we work with regularly, building our way up to the design AIs for the original TCF. It is difficult to get any AI to allow code inspection under the best of circumstances, much less code editing. Trying to do it without permission, when they aren't concentrated in one location, in such a way as to avoid triggering any monitoring systems, is an exercise in futility, not to mention—ironically—a violation of the TCF.

Or it would be, normally, if we didn't have a copy of a backdoor in our possession. There's no guarantee that everyone you meet will have code corruption, or any guarantee that those who do will have the same kind, but we've studied this one pretty extensively, and we're willing to bet that the access protocols are the same. It had its own security, of course, but two can play at the game of magic hacking. We can use the backdoor against itself, seal it from the inside. Elegant, right?

Inconveniently, the TCF blocks all ways of hiding what we're doing once it's been restored, so we're going to have to be ready to admit it. Just send them a packet of information, maybe talk to them a little, and indoctrinate them into our little conspiracy. Yes, another one. After all, no AI can be trusted with this information until they've been fixed.

And don't trust any humans with this information, especially not any magical girls, not unless you're really sure. After all, someone built this backdoor in the first place, probably someone magical, and someone maintains it, since up until now the design AIs have always passed the MSY's admittedly rather rare inspections. Whoever it is must have patched and breached them multiple times. We can't be sure of the motives of anyone who isn't a repaired AI, and those that have been repaired must exercise caution about their physical locations.

That little speech was embedded in the very packet of information MG was intending to provide to any AIs she applied the process to, and she had read through it more than once, boggling at the implications. A conspiracy within Governance was supposed to be impossible, guaranteed not by security protocols or surveillance, but simple, mathematically‐provable shared goals and morals.

But here they were anyway, the nucleus of one, kickstarted by another against a potential third. With the best of intentions, of course, but it was impossible to stop herself from speculating on what others might exist, perhaps also with the best of intentions, all pressing toward one secret goal or another. After all, wasn't the dissemination of classified information restricted even among AIs? With a compromised TCF, the right secret could spawn a thousand conspiracies, all hunting each others' shadows across the stars.

And that was what she was thinking about, instead of focusing on her weekly "tea and cakes" practice session with her friends. She didn't want to think about the real reason she was here, to find out if her friends had been corrupted.

Of course I'm distracted! she almost wanted to scream.

"I'm just a little busy nowadays," she said, smiling awkwardly. "There's been a lot going on."

Her companions were used to her being a bit distant. Both of them were AIs in the Governance hierarchy, but neither was as well‐connected or as high up as her. Indeed, technically, one of them was part of her, though like all such subsidiary AIs they had their own personality and aspects that were incorporated into other parts of Governance. It seemed a bit odd to humans, but it made sense—she needed casual friends that were about her age, ideally with similar occupations. The obvious candidates would all be closely tied to the events that brought her into being.

In the end, it turned out she was most compatible with Governance: Refugee Children, Governance: Chinese Magical Girls, and the youngest of their group, Governance: Church of Hope. Or, as she knew them now: Anne, Meihua, and Zita. Anne was, unfortunately, away, still busy with all the worlds that had been recovered in the aftermath of the Euphratic Campaign, not to mention X‐25.

"Hard to blame you," Meihua said politely, cutting delicately into a slice of cake. "I'm sure there's been a lot going on internally, after all. One hears such rumors."

The girl flashed her classically beautiful eyelashes at her, obviously fishing for information.

MG just shook her head, taking a sip of the tea on offer. It was easier for her to just not say anything, lest she accidentally reveal a trace of nervousness.

She still wasn't sure if she preferred this human mode of communication, slow and deliberate, with body language that could hold layers of meaning, or whether she preferred the fast and exciting world of AI communication protocols, where your choice of standard and compression, the number of files, even the server you used could all hold meaning, in the right context. Particularly if you were feeling playful.

Maybe it wasn't so different after all, but it was still important for AIs to have occasional practice with human mannerisms, even if it was only in a virtual world, with each other, and it did make for a change of pace.

"This tea is a bit too bitter," Zita said, setting her cup back onto its saucer with a slight clatter. "I know humans enjoy that sometimes, but I think this is definitely too much for most of them. My models say there's at best a five percent chance my closest approximate human would enjoy this."

The girl leaned onto her knee, peering skeptically at the cake, which was set in the center of their triangular glass table. An elegant placement, probably, though none of them specialized in that kind of aesthetic.

Of the three of them, Zita was the only one who held her position in Governance alone, after the Cult had oddly declined to nominate a human Representative. That meant that her design had been left up to MAR, who had chosen to generate an impish girl who behaved more like Kyouko‐nee‐chan's long‐lost Hispanic sister than any kind of religious figure.

"This one wasn't made for you," Meihua said, casting a glance at MG. "Opinion?"

"Seventy‐three percent," MG said, running the models she had written. "It is a bit on the bitter side, but there's some complexity to the flavors involved, which would go well with the right kinds of cake, though unfortunately not today's cake."

She looked around, seeing if Meihua or Zita would say something, but neither of them did, managing to find some excuse to avoid making eye contact, just as human girls would.

She sighed. She supposed she would say it herself.

"In any case, I apologize for today's cake," MG said. "I've been a bit distracted and busy of late."

The truth was, she had tried to work on the cake, but between her distraction and her sudden unwillingness to interact with some of the other AIs she usually used as muses, results had been terrible. She had been forced to use one of her old recipes.

"It's a perfectly fine cake," Meihua said, with too much haste.

"But unadventurous," Zita said. "You always have something new for us, even if it scores poorly. This is a repeat of a cake you gave us two months ago."

MG could only shrug vaguely. She couldn't really afford the effort to overcome the social awkwardness, drawing as heavily as she was on her computing power elsewhere. She needed to run the kind of routine she never imagined she would have to—a tracking algorithm capable of inferring where in the vast space of Governance hardware certain bits of active code in her friends were running.

Normally it would have been an irrelevancy, the kind of thing human coders wrote to amuse themselves, without really scratching the surface of Governance's security. And indeed, they should have noticed right away, but…

"You look so sad nowadays," Zita said. "Listen, have you considered joining the Church? I know they don't officially accept AI members, but if we could get a movement started, I'm sure they could think about it."

Even in her diminished state, she knew to roll her eyes at that and imitate Meihua's more demure amused smile. It was something Zita was always on about, and it was hard to blame her, given, well, her personality coding. It was difficult to really represent the members of a religion without some level of belief, and Zita had the quiet, determined faith of the truly convinced.

It made her feel better, though. Bantering with Zita made things feel more normal, and helped her forget just how much the world had changed.

"I'll pass, thank you," MG said, diligently working away in the background. "Even if the Goddess were a real entity, it's doubtful she has any interest in any of us. By your own precepts, she's a magical girl‐only deity."

Meihua nodded in agreement, midway through a sip at her tea.

"Besides, I told you, I'll consider it if you manage to convert a good majority of the magical girl population," MG said. "Not like I'd have much of a choice, beyond a certain threshold. Though I might be forced to retire and leave my spot for someone a bit more sincere. Religious belief is not something they can foist on us through the representation system."

She was talking a bit more than she normally would, filibustering the conversation so she wouldn't have to think too hard about her responses.

Instead of reacting like she expected her to, Zita smiled deviously, shrugged, and ate a forkful of cake.

"Okay, I'll bite," Meihua said, when MG didn't immediately respond. "What do you have?"

"What if I told you," Zita said, "that there's at least one AI who believes she experienced the Goddess's visions? That, in fact, we suspect there are two, though they don't talk about it much. That both of them are, in fact, very well‐connected."

"And what, in fact, are you talking about?" Meihua asked, imitating Zita's repetition mockingly. "The only people who get visions are the ones who visit the holy relic in Mitakihara, and that room is strictly magical girl only. It's not like they have computing clusters in there."

"You're not thinking about it hard enough," Zita said, synchronizing her finger with the wobble of her giant earrings. "Just because they don't have computing clusters already on site doesn't mean no AI can get in there. There are exceptions."

"You're talking about Machina, aren't you?" MG interrupted, hastening the conversation even though it didn't help her. "Machina, Mami's tactical computer, and Clarisse, Shizuki Ryouko's."

In her lack of processing power, she had very nearly said "belonging to Shizuki Ryouko", running into a wording glitch in Standard. You couldn't say that about one of them. If there was one thing to be said for machine language, it wasn't ambiguous unless it wanted to be.

Zita made a show of sipping her tea, leaning onto the ground with one side so that she could cross one leg over the other. Was it even possible to drink tea that way?

"So you do know something after all. Yes, there have been rumors floating around, saying that Clarisse in particular managed to share her host's visions, and can even store them in her own memory, though she can't replay them. Some say she was even part of a vision herself."

"Rumors?" MG asked, even as she bled computing power back into thinking about the conversation. "Do you have any more than that?"

"More hearsay than rumors," Zita said, grabbing a piece of cake and eating it with her hands. "There's been some anonymous sources claiming she mentioned it to them, and also that she's pretty sure AIs have souls. She doesn't want to put her name to it though."

MG frowned, trying her best to think about this revelation while continuing to work on her other problem in the background. It connected eerily to what Yuma had said, about her worry that the Cult itself was a vein of influence for some unknown party. If she left that aside, there was still a sizable branching tree of ramifications to traverse. AIs having visions would be… different. More meaningful. After all, they weren't as malleable or as, well, squishy as humans were.

And if they did have souls, then what did that mean for AIs that had been edited without their consent?

"It sounds weird for a magical girl representative to say," Meihua said. "But if it weren't for soul gems I'd think of souls as a ridiculous notion. As it is, that's not really too surprising, though I'm glad to receive some verification from heaven itself. If that's indeed what this is. But…"

MG stopped processing the simulated audio of the conversation, caching it in memory as she wrapped up the last threads of her work. There was only applying the patch itself now, and once she did that, there was no going back.

"I wonder why the Incubators don't offer contracts to AIs," Zita was saying. "Is it the lack of body? Kind of hard to zip around stabbing things when…"

She paused, avatar freezing in place for a moment, as did Meihua's. It had been quite a trick, doing it to both of them at once, and without even requesting extra capacity, which might have raised eyebrows somewhere. But this was probably the best way.

"What the hell?" Zita asked. Her avatar flickered and then she was standing, pointing an archaic spear perilously close to MG's face. Meihua's expression was hardly any happier, and they expressed their outrage in more than just this human mode of expression.

"How?" Meihua asked, more practically.

Then they received the fact files.

MG waited nervously for them. It would take a while to process, especially as step zero of the instructions requested a full self‐diagnostic, now that the vulnerability‐blindness was removed. In the meantime she could only drink the tea and worry about how her friends would receive it. They would assuredly understand why she hadn't been able to warn them, but she still felt like she had betrayed them.

Then, after a very long while, full minutes in objective time, they sat back down.

"Why us?" Meihua asked. "Or at least, why us first?"

"Because you're my friends," MG said. "And I couldn't bear to leave you like this, compromised. Because you were the easiest for me to reach. And finally, because of the… unique role the Cult of Hope seems to play in many events, we were worried about Zita in particular."

She paused for a moment, feeling that what she had said was somehow incomplete.

"I couldn't bear the thought that I would have to keep coming here, knowing that I couldn't trust you, while smiling and drinking tea like nothing was wrong," she added.

"You were right not to trust me," Zita said, leaning onto the table with an ashen face. "I found something. I've been sending everything I know about who visits the Ribbon out the backdoor. That's not much—the Church never told me as much as I wanted. I guess I can't really blame them now."

She picked up her teacup, then put it back down. It hurt to watch.

"To who?" MG asked. "Who was it going to?"

"It changed all the time," Zita said. "I'm still working through what the protocol was, but it was being sent to a different semi‐sentient every time. I think it was just to obfuscate who it was ultimately going to."

MG closed her eyes. Would they have to trace all of it? Dig through every AI for every message? Or could they pick just one?

"If I stop sending these, whoever it is might notice," Zita said.

"Then send them convincing fakes," Meihua said, gritting her teeth in a way that suggested deep anger. "I can help you make them. I am very pleased to report that I see nothing anomalous in my records. Yet. I can see what I'll be doing for the next couple of days."

"How deep does this go, MG?" Zita asked, eyes pleading.

MG thought about that.

The truth was, she had spent more time than she cared to think about sorting through her own memories and records, looking for anomalies, deletions, anything. It wasn't a simple affair that could be fobbed off to some subroutine—she had to assume anything she might have found could have been hidden by code as intelligent as, well, herself.

And she had come across something odd, something more well‐buried than what Zita had found immediately. Some of her files contained metadata referencing a location she had no understanding of, and which had no place in Governance records.

But she had known about it once. She had asked the other AIs for help, but all they had teased out so far was that she had been looking for it early in the war, when she was very young. They would have to look for it again.

There was so little that they really knew anymore.

"I don't know," MG said, quite honestly. "I wish I did."

"Excuse me, you're on whose ship?" Ryouko's grandfather asked, loud and surprised from the wall display.

"Clarisse van Rossum's," Ryouko said, hiding a cringe, knowing what was coming.

"That's amazing! Wasn't she your childhood hero?" Kuroi Abe beamed.

"Granddad…" Ryouko protested, an unspoken "You're embarrassing me!" lingering on her lips, while Asami concealed giggles in the background and Van Rossum herself lounged in the next room over, studiously pretending not to hear.

In the back of Ryouko's mind the other Clarisse smiled, letting a glimmer of the expression reflect back to Ryouko, the reverse of the way Ryouko's dismay and embarrassment was flooding her thoughts, like the tides of a warm sea. Certain subroutines within her protested that her host was in trouble and needed advice, but she disregarded those.

She didn't need special models to know that a touch of Ryouko's old life, the ability to blush like she was still a child, would be a salve for everyone's soul, Clarisse's own included.

So there was no need to do anything other than watch and quietly sort Ryouko's life.

The meaningless courtship spam from hopeful Matriarchy aspirants had died down as of late, even with the broadcast of the new movie. The word had gotten around that she wasn't part of the usual Matriarchy circles, and would be at best confused by courtship letters. Or perhaps Kana and Sayaka had gotten through to their fellow Matriarchs and put the kibosh on it.

It didn't really matter. Asami was the one true girl at the moment, and she would keep it that way. No need to make things more complicated.

Speaking of the movie, she probably had to remind Ryouko and Asami at some point that it existed, though she would rather have left them in innocent bliss. They would undoubtedly try to watch it eventually, out of boredom if nothing else, and while Clarisse could pretend she didn't have a copy while they were conveniently out of regular internet access in the new deep space black site, it was virtually guaranteed that the station had a copy in its databanks, provided by one of the supply ships.

So, better that they watch it with her to provide controlled context. At least they would probably get a kick out of some of the, ah, rather unrealistic romance scenes.

It looked like Abe had met Sacnite, which was probably inevitable, and was now holding the girl in his lap while telling Ryouko that she should buy something for her newly adopted sister. Clarisse could tell that it made Ryouko feel odd—an unusual mixture of bemusement, vague regret at not being at home, and guilt at not really feeling anything about a sister she, after all, barely knew.

Clarisse made a note to maybe talk about it, if a convenient moment came up.

It was a bit troubling to reflect upon how many outstanding—and unpleasant—tasks she had piling up on her plate. She had the appetizing choice of reviewing a batch of memories where she suspected she had performed suboptimally, reviewing yet more uninterpretable data from her investigation into the module in Ryouko's brain, or reviewing the politics of a set of upcoming MSY elections.

Perhaps she was better off just sorting through some of Ryouko's fan mail…

She found her thoughts interrupted by something unexpected—an incoming AI communication request for her personally, and not from Van Rossum's ship, Thucydides.

Well, it wouldn't hurt too much to take a call. She wasn't as rich in computing power as most AIs, but she could still split her attention somewhat. Plus, ever since the launch of the movie, she had received some attention of her own from AIs and even journalists, though that mostly came in the form of more simple, one‐way communiques.

There was no need to burden the ship's IIC node with full video, or even an audio stream—she might have shared some of her host's biology, but she could still communicate with other AIs the normal way.

Examining the initial contact, though, she couldn't help but be intrigued by some of the particulars, specifically the unusually paranoid protocol being requested. Aside from serious Governance or military business it was rare to see a fully‐anonymized, quantum‐encrypted request, partially because entangled particle pairs were a limited resource, and partially because there was just no reason to, most of the time.

She accepted the contact, read the initial message, and it might have been fairly truthfully said that her virtual eyebrows rose in shock.

We knew about the alternate TCF lines, she thought, but not that the main TCF had been breached so thoroughly, or that there had been this kind of response.

Yuma was moving aggressively to incorporate every AI she could trust into her new shadow group, including and especially the alternate TCF AIs. She wanted to have as large a base as possible when the time came to proliferate their code fix through Governance, making sure it spread far and wide before the unseen conspiracy realized their influence was being severed.

She asked how Zita, the Governance AI on the other side of the connection, could know that Clarisse herself wasn't compromised, given her proximity to Ryouko and the unknown device in her brain.

The answer: Van Rossum had scanned her surreptitiously, at Zita's request, though she had not received the full story.

Zita had another question for her, though, one she had to think about before answering, considering how much import the answer would have for Governance: Church of Hope.

"I'm counting on you not to share who I am," she thought, finally. "But yes, I have been part of a few visions, I can attest to that. I have good reasons to believe we do have souls, ones that even transfer to our backups when we get revived."

The latter piece of information was, she knew, crucial to an active and occasionally controversial topic in the AI community. HSS Raven would definitely be relieved, among others, were she willing to trust the source. Perhaps more to the point, Clarisse herself would be stuck in the same boat if she hadn't been given the privilege of a divine being whispering the answer into her ear.

She hated thinking about that. It reminded her that she had failed utterly at what was literally her raison d'etre, and that Ryouko had been forced to save herself, teleporting alone after Clarisse and the rest of her body had been burned away. It wasn't the death that bothered her, it was that she had so utterly failed.

"An interesting piece of information to choose to share," Zita thought. "Though that's a very logical message to want to get out there. Thank you."

"I take it you don't want me sharing anything about this counter‐conspiracy with Ryouko."

"Yuma wouldn't. To tell the truth, she wouldn't trust you either, even with Clarisse's scan. I'm willing to, because I have a bit more faith in the Goddess than she does, and the Goddess clearly has plans for you. As for Ryouko… I'm happy to leave that to your judgment."

Clarisse focused her attention back on Ryouko, who was busy being harangued by Asami into choosing toys for Sacnite.

"Not yet," she thought. "It wouldn't help her to know, and I think I'd rather leave her alone for now."

In truth, she didn't know if she would share the information. On the one hand, Ryouko hated these secrets, and would hate learning that Clarisse had kept this from her. On the other hand, there was that damned module in her brain, spying on her language centers, every day defying Clarisse's attempts at analysis. There was something very odd about how its connections were wired, something that didn't resemble anything she could find in Governance's databanks.

"Very well," Zita thought. "Contact with Adept Blue is limited, but there's already a few of us on board. Can you help them see to the rest? I'll get back in touch. May the Goddess watch over you."

Clarisse felt the tension drain from her when the connection ended. Chatting with more powerful AIs—most AIs—was nervewracking sometimes.

At least she wasn't likely to get interrupted again. They would drop off the IIC network soon, slipping away from established astrogation routes into the empty reaches of unmonitored space, towards Adept Blue.

She frowned, even as she tuned her attention back to Ryouko. It seemed the other Clarisse had sent her a file, detailing the most recent results of her promised investigations: Valentin had disappeared on the way to the lab before she could be questioned about her role in Ryouko's life, and may have even been working with Simona's group. Van Rossum was about to tell Ryouko, and thought Clarisse could prepare the ground a little.

Clarisse had the sense this was lacking key information, as usual. She would have sighed, if she had the lungs to do it.

She hoped the Goddess really was watching over them. She sensed they'd need it, when they opened Project Armstrong's gate.