The governments of the colonial worlds are a deliberate hodgepodge, running the gamut from primitive republic‐like systems on non‐Governance sponsored colonies to what are effectively mini‐Governances on Nova Terra and Samsara, which have both computing systems that integrate into those of Earth and their own Representatives in Governance itself.

The typical Governance sponsored colony will land without a government at all, the activities and occupations of the initial colonists directed explicitly by the colonization AIs, and thus by Governance. In time, once the initial settlement period is over and economic activity can begin, each settlement will form its own Optimization Committee, composed of the most important local AIs and some chosen human members.

As infrastructure develops, these will unfurl both horizontally and vertically, building specialized governing AIs, forming subgroups that manage aspects of the now‐cities and that integrate together to make provincial or regional decisions. The approval for and programming of a Planetary Council is considered a seminal step, freeing the planet to make its own decisions regarding currency, trade policy, and economic agreements with other systems.

In the final stage, as on the first two Core Worlds, the planet is given its own direct connections into Governance, with the opinions of their citizens weighted ever more directly into even Directorate‐level Representatives, and each planet receiving its own near‐Directorate level Representative to discuss its interests as a group. This is not a process without controversy, since greater involvement in Governance comes hand‐in‐hand with more direct Governance management of planetary affairs.

To the occasional displeasure of their colonists, most worlds still lack direct representation in pan‐human Governance, but it is to be noted that colonies, especially the unsponsored ones, have the privilege of home rule on most matters. Further, it is not true that the non‐Core Worlds have no representation—each relevant Governance Representative takes into consideration the opinions of colonial citizens, but often simply lacks the authority to effect direct change through the intervening layer of colonial government. The degree of representation in Governance reflects, naturally, the degree of power Governance can wield.

— "Primary School Civics: Sixth Level Resource on Colonial Organization," excerpt.

"Like everything else, utopia rests in the eye of the soul. Let's not pat ourselves on the back, thinking we've built the perfect world for everybody, for everything. Eudaimonia conforms to the shape of human values, and the evidence we have is that those values vary quite a bit. That's a state of affairs that, by the way, is unheard of in any other species, at least if you believe the Incubators. But even the Incubators have values…"

— Akemi Homura, meeting transcript of the Leadership Subcommittee on Human Development, 2411.

"It really is a surprise to see you out here, Mom. It's been so long."

Nadya shrugged, hiding a pang of guilt. "So long" meant twenty years, twenty years since she had last visited the planet she had spent a century on, the planet where she had raised most of her children.

Twenty years since she had visited Catherine, one of her older daughters.

"Ah well, you know how it is. I've been busy with my work, and it's much more important to keep tabs on the younger ones. You can take care of yourself."

She felt a bit self‐conscious in her current form—she hadn't wanted to spend the effort to age up, but now she was stuck sitting at the table like a child watching her mother cook.

She brushed her sleeve nervously, watching Catherine chop her way methodically through a block of celseva, a local root vegetable whose smell brought to mind countless family meals now past. Catherine was well over a century old herself, and knew her mother better than Nadya often wished.

Chop. Chop. Chop. The sounds were rhythmically precise, and Nadya couldn't tell if she was just imagining that they were a bit more forceful than necessary.

Nadya knew Catherine disapproved of her mother's lifestyle, between the dangerous fighting and odd dalliances, but well, Catherine had never paid any attention to her opinions, so there was no reason she needed to reciprocate.

Then again, that sounded a bit like spiteful logic, didn't it? Catherine had lost siblings to the war, and had always taken it harder than Nadya had.

"Well it's good of you to stop by," Catherine said. "I think it's nice for Piotr to get to meet his grandmother for once. He's very excited to see that new movie you're in."

Catherine flashed her eyes at Nadya, as if to say "I know you're embarrassed by the movie, but you're going to have to endure it."

Nadya smiled enigmatically. She always enjoyed meeting new grandkids, even if she had gotten a little fuzzy about seeing them routinely.

"Alex says he saw you stopping by the, uh, Cult of Hope center yesterday," Catherine said, frowning at her canisters of spice.

She didn't elaborate, but Nadya could almost hear the unspoken "I hope you're not really getting involved in that nonsense. Why were you there?"

"I had some business with a friend there," Nadya said.

She drank her kvessberry juice slowly, using it as an excuse not to elaborate further. However good Catherine was at reading her mother, there was no way she could have guessed Nadya's real reason for being here. More importantly, even if she sensed Nadya was being less than candid, she wasn't rude enough to ask. She had been raised better than that.

Nadya was here, of course, on a bit of an errand from Sakura Kyouko, as one branch of the Cult of Hope's ongoing investigation into Misa's death, or rather, disappearance.

They had been cross‐correlating old leads on Homura with the pieced‐together itinerary of Joanne Valentin—Clarisse van Rossum's report of her disappearance having snagged on something in Kyouko's gut. The way Valentin seemed to have been discreetly maneuvering Ryouko's life, the unflinching leadership style, a strange in‐person encounter they'd had at a sushi bar…

In any case, it seemed Miss Valentin was quite the interplanetary traveler, in an era where that was difficult to do without good cause. Moreover, at one point nearly a decade ago, she had chosen to take a vacation here, on Yenisei, a planet Nadya knew damn well had nothing really worth visiting. That was at the same time three local magical girls had claimed there must have been an unidentified magical girl in the area, based on their observations of unusually short‐lived miasmas.

Nadya had volunteered to come here, since she knew the locale, but frankly it had been slow going. The events in question were long ago, the two remaining magical girls—one had died in the Saharan Raid—were now living on opposite sides of the planet, and questioning them had yielded nothing that wasn't in the Cult's records already.

"I can see you're busy," Catherine said, looming over Nadya just as she realized she had lost track of the conversation.

"Yes, I—the truth is that it was about one of the girls I had been working with, one of those who died during the mission," Nadya said, papering over the gaffe as best she could. "I've known her for a long time, and she was a believer. It's only appropriate to pay respects."

Catherine nodded, taking a seat across from Nadya. She seemed to appreciate the sentiment.

"I watched the movie," she said. "To preview it before showing it to Piotr. To make sure it portrayed you in a healthy light."

She poured herself a cup of juice, then picked it up without drinking it.

"The Cult came up a lot there, among the members of the team. I suppose it helps to have something to believe in, in an occupation like that."

Their unspoken thoughts hung over the table like a miasma, one that neither of them needed to point out. She could only imagine what was going through her daughter's mind. It was one thing to disapprove of a parent who risked her life recklessly, another when that parent had apparently helped save all of Humanity. What could one say to that?

But the emotions didn't change.

Nadya was rescued from the conversation by a mental ping signaling that Alex was nearly at the hatch, Piotr in tow. There would be time to probe old wounds later.

"Nana!" the boy said, before he had even turned the corner, and Nadya was up to greet him, feeling awkward hugging a kid who was at this point not that much shorter than she was. To be frank, she wasn't really sure why her grandkids were always excited to see her, given how rarely she was around. It might have just been the novelty, but she appreciated it nonetheless.

"You want to watch the movie?" the blond‐haired kid asked, looking up at her with stars in his eyes. It reminded her of her second son, who was a casualty count in the war, and she felt a tug at her heartstrings.

"Uh, sure!" she said, attempting a smile.

She wouldn't say it now, but she had been deliberately avoiding seeing Orpheus. She hated seeing herself on screen. Clarisse, having noticed, had once advised Nadya to decouple the stories others told about her from her own, personal story, that the first rightfully belonged to humanity and that the second belonged only to her.

Nadya didn't think she could summon that much serenity yet. But, she would bear it, even if she didn't like being made to think about the mission.

"You were late," Catherine said to her husband, as Nadya followed Piotr towards the other room.

"It couldn't be avoided," Alex said. "There was a power outage."

"A power outage?" Catherine echoed. "That's a rarity."

"It's all over the local news. There's a bunch of outdoor equipment starting to freeze now."

Nadya couldn't help but stop in the archway for a moment and look back, even as Piotr attempted to drag her by the hand. It couldn't be, could it?

She didn't say anything, though. Instead, she let herself be pulled down onto the wall bench with Piotr for the movie, tabbing through the local news on her implants. There was no telltale drain in this power outage, or at least none that had been reported. Instead, it seemed there had been some kind of large detonation outside the town that local Representatives were saying was probably one of the planet's many methane pockets undergoing some kind of natural explosion. It had knocked out one of the underground cables that routed power from the equatorial solar arrays powering the continent. Investigation was still ongoing into exactly how the incident had knocked out power to much of the town, since there were supposed to be safeguards—

"Wow, who's that?" Piotr said, pointing at the holographic display Nadya had forgotten to pay attention to.

She reviewed her memory hastily, then had to hide a frown.

"That's Misa," she said. "One of my, uh, friends."

This was some kind of opening scene, with Shizuki Ryouko being introduced to Nadya and the rest of the team, who were engaged in combat exercises. The filmmakers had taken some liberties, it seemed, but Nadya could hardly deny that her team had done a lot of combat exercises, even if they had been VR‐based.

"She's pretty," Piotr said. "I saw a girl just like her today. She was pretty too."

Nadya blinked three times rapidly.

"You what?" she asked, pausing the movie with a mental command.

"What?" Piotr asked. "Why'd you stop the movie?"

"You said you saw a girl just like her today," Nadya said, clutching her armrest to try to keep herself from talking too loudly and scaring her grandson. "Where? How?"

"It wasn't her," Piotr said, crinkling his nose and making a face. "She had the wrong name."

"Can I have a picture?" Nadya asked.

Piotr rolled his eyes.

"Alright, but I want to go back to the movie after this."

He ducked his head, adopting the odd expression that children often had when operating their internal electronics. Meanwhile, the wheels turned in Nadya's head.

No civilian had military‐grade NeverForget modules, so Nadya wasn't going to get a perfect image, but it was worth the attempt. If the nomenclator asserted it wasn't her, there was actually a good chance it wasn't: In the hypothetical scenario where Misa was using a close doppelganger as a disguise, Governance systems were certainly capable of noticing that the same person was in two places at once. But there were ways around such safeguards, if one was determined enough, especially if one had access to magic.

The image arrived a moment later, and Nadya took a look even as Piotr turned back towards the entertainment alcove. The image was distorted by the vagaries of human memory, most of the details reconstructed only approximately—sidewalk, roadway, building, streetlamp. But the person in the center, who had obviously been the focus of Piotr's attention, was clear.

She stood with a fierce expression in the middle of the roadway, looking out over the town, angry about something. Nadya didn't need a nomenclator to know it was her.

She started to stand, then saw Piotr staring up at her. It hurt, but she had to go now. Misa was probably long gone, but maybe… maybe she wasn't. She couldn't take that risk.

"I'm sorry, Piotr. I have something important I need to do. We can watch later, okay?"

"Can I go with you?" Piotr asked, eyes wide. "I want to meet her."

Nadya let out a breath.

She didn't know why she had said yes, but presumably it was some combination of guilt and the sense that perhaps Piotr would be useful, and could point something out to her. Or maybe it was something more fundamental, a desire not to be alone out here, superstition that maybe bringing the boy along would help, like a talisman.

There would be time to self‐reflect later.

"So this is the spot, huh?" she asked, looking around the unpromising roadway. She was only asking rhetorically, as Piotr's picture had come with a location tag, here on the outskirts of the squat, mostly underground town.

"Yep," Piotr said, answering her question anyway. "Do you think she'll like me?"

Nadya couldn't just admit the real reason why she was out here, no matter how good Piotr's childish intuition had been. There was no real risk of a secrecy breach—Misa was only indirectly connected to her original mission, and she could explain it away as an old soldier unable to get over a death. But Piotr might tell Catherine and Nadya really did not want to have to hear about it.

She settled, as she had previously, for ignoring the question, rubbing her hands together in the cold. She had hoped the location would be useful to her, maybe even emit some telltale trace of magic, but there was, well, nothing here.

She needed to think. It had been rather optimistic of her, expecting that she could just rush out here and find something. The people—the faction, really—she was looking for weren't just going to leave easy evidence lying around. She would have to try a little harder than that.

Perhaps if she talked to one of the magical girl patrol groups she might get a bit more information. Her twenty‐fourth‐century connections had withered from the decades and the war, but Kyouko had provided a few nebulous contacts from the new generation to augment hers. She would have to see.

For now, though, she faced the question of whether she should send Piotr home, or keep letting him tag along.

"Oh, is that your son? He's cute!"

The leader of the outskirts patrol group ruffled his hair playfully, smiling. The nomenclator said she was a twenty‐six‐year‐old veteran, a local back from the front for an extended post‐Euphratic Front leave rotation.

"My grandson, actually," Nadya corrected. That was the kind of information that would have been easy to look up on a nomenclator but was polite to talk about in person, if only to give everyone a topic of conversation.

The girl nodded knowingly, then stood up to look Nadya in the eye.

"I was told you needed help with something, so I answered the bell. What did you need?"

"I wanted to ask if you've encountered any unusual or unexpected magical girls recently," Nadya asked, deciding she may as well get right down to business. "I'm interested in someone anomalous who may have passed by here."

The girl tilted her head, receiving the question with the expected alacrity.

"I'm afraid my answer won't be very helpful," she said. "I've seen plenty."

She paused a rhetorical moment to acknowledge Nadya's surprise, then explained:

"We got a lot of girls fresh back from the war who need to blow off some steam by demon hunting. We generally try to watch their backs and otherwise leave them alone. That's what the MHD tells us to to do. And if one or two are really Soul Guard agents passing by on missions, so what? No reason to ask questions."

There might have been no reason to ask any questions, but she still looked at Nadya expectantly.

"No, I don't know about anything like that," Nadya answered, quite honestly. "So you wouldn't know if anyone new passed by?"

"I didn't say that."

She looked down at Piotr, who was watching them wordlessly, then at Nadya.

"It's alright," Nadya said. "We're not talking about anything secret or anything."

Or at least not secret yet, she added mentally.

The other girl seemed to relax a tick.

"There was something," she said. "You know about the power outage we had recently, right? The methane explosion? The thing is, when we first heard about the outage, it didn't make much sense to us, because we know about the local methane pockets. We have a girl with explosive powers who detonates them regularly in the miasma. She knows where they all are, and she swears up and down there's none near where the explosion happened. Still, they apparently got some drones out there to take a look, and they verified the story. I'm not entirely sure, though."

Nadya heard what the girl was saying, but didn't respond immediately, turning the issue over in her head. She hadn't been convinced the power outage was related, but if the local girls were suspicious…

Would you mind taking me there to check it out? she asked. Unofficially; no vehicle.

The girl gave her a searching look, one she had difficulty reading precisely. Was she reluctant? Intrigued?

Alright. But I have to remind you, the terrain isn't exactly human‐friendly. More drones out there than people, as they say. Way more. Maybe not suitable for Piotr over here.

The tone of her comment was chiding, as it had to be—Nadya knew the hazards well, so the girl was just letting her know she would disapprove of any attempt to take Piotr out there.

She was right, of course. Nadya felt more disappointed than she expected. What, had she been expecting that she could take him on some kind of childhood adventure? What would that even achieve?

No, I suppose not, she thought. "Piotr."

She leaned over to address the boy, who looked up at her with surprised eyes.

I need you to go back home and tell your mother that I'm going out there, she thought, drawing on the telepathic quadrant of the telecluster, to check out the explosion that happened in the news. I'll be back before dusk. Don't tell anyone else about this, okay? It's very important.

Piotr's eyes widened, and Nadya knew he was thinking about how exciting and clandestine his mission was, rather than that Nadya was sending him away.

"Okay," he said, nodding seriously, and he turned to run off without even remembering to say goodbye.

It wasn't entirely a lie. Prudence dictated that she let someone know where she was going, and Kyouko had told her to be discreet, avoiding electronic communications. Nadya hadn't questioned it, because she knew when an Ancient meant what she was saying.

"Nice job," the girl said, and Nadya nodded.

The girl's name was Rubina, the kind of name which suggested that her parents had chosen the prosaic frontier life of Yenisei quite deliberately, as Nadya once had.

Rubina hadn't been kidding about the isolation of the power relay they were visiting. The sleepy fringe structures of the town had abruptly given way to the resource silos and greenhouse domes where Governance tested the limits of its terraforming expertise, then to nearly nothing at all, the frosty plains blasted nearly flat by the routine hurricane‐force storms. As they jogged, infrared signatures scurried around beneath her, disturbed by her presence, and fungal stalks crunched beneath her boots, the visible emanation of the vast networks of semi‐underground mycelium that harvested the sun in between periods of storm.

Eventually, after far too long, the marker hanging over their destination faded from their vision, and they found themselves face to face with a squat dome‐like structure, painted pale red to match the fungal stalks, which climbed opportunistically over the surface.

The side was caved in, as if it had been smashed by a giant hammer, and drones moved languidly nearby, dragging pieces of equipment to some kind of treaded vehicle.

"This doesn't exactly look like a methane explosion," Nadya said, touching the hole in the dome with one hand. "The damage is too specific. And these aren't the right kind of scorch marks."

"Definitely not," Rubina said.

Neither of them were specialized investigators, but both had seen plenty of combat. It gave you a certain understanding of the various ways you could ruin infrastructure.

She peered inside, and found that it had been stripped bare, which at least fit the story that the relay had been rendered irreparable, and a new one would have to be built.

"Something over here," Rubina said, just as Nadya had started to ponder the merits of jumping into the hole.

She circled around the back of the structure, and found Rubina pointing at a long line of charred ground, visible against the gray soil, where the fungal stalks seemed to shy away. The path seemed to emerge from the relay, leading outward to some unknown destination.

"I'd say there's a cable here," Rubina commented, reading something on her retinal display. "But it's not labeled in the diagram the Cult gave us. There shouldn't be anything going this way. Maybe there was some kind of underground attack?"

The last question she directed at Nadya with the kind of hopeful look you used when you hoped someone had all the answers.

Nadya didn't, of course. But some questions could be answered with a more direct approach.

She transformed, donning her uniform‐like magical girl costume in one flash of light.

She raised one gloved hand, carving soil out of the ground in one giant scoop, selecting what she intended to move with a few probing actions. She wouldn't be as effective as a real earth specialist, of course, but she had honed her maximal weight capacity to MSY‐record levels. Quantity, as they said, had a quality all its own.

There was something down there, alright, a dozen feet below the surface. Something that couldn't readily be carved into with mere telekinesis. It was, indeed, roughly shaped like a cable.

She made a gesture, and a column of soil rose out of the earth straight up into the air, displaying layers of brittle surface, mud, whitish near‐permafrost, pale white fungal mycelium, and part of an underground tunnel system belonging to some kind of rodent colony. Interestingly, there was visible damage—the fungus looked partially dead, blackened in a number of places, and near the bottom of the stack one could see what looked to her like partially melted soil, fused into one discolored lump.

She could carry a lot more than just this, but there was no need to push herself. She let it hover in place briefly, then cast it forcefully to the side, so that it landed near the relay with a thud. Then she set about making the hole larger, large enough to at least inspect what was down there.

Soon there was no doubt as to the matter. It was a cable, albeit one that had fused catastrophically, the outer insulation torn open and the superconducting composite underneath slagged and misshapen.

She and Rubina stood next to each other, peering down into the hole. Superconductors could carry vast but not unlimited amounts of current. In the field, military‐grade weapons systems routinely stretched things to the limit, straining to match alien capability, and a direct hit could release an impressive amount of current, something Misa had occasionally made creative use of.

Even so, a cable of this size should have been able to take quite a bit, more than anything the relay could have delivered even in the worst case.

"There's not supposed to be a cable out here," Rubina repeated, not bothering to point out the obvious lack of methane explosion. "What in the Goddess's name is this?"

Nadya made a serious expression, shaking her head slightly.

"Let's follow it, and see what we get."

She didn't question it when Rubina transformed as well, dashing with her down the fungal plains in what looked like an old‐fashioned mechanic's work outfit. It never hurt to be paranoid when the situation was… unpredictable.

Nadya smelled it before she saw it—molecules of oxidized polymers and overheated structural elements strewn on the wind; an all‐too‐familiar scent for her doubly‐enhanced senses. She quickened her pace.

Neither of them were much surprised, then, when they happened upon a ruined structure. They were much more surprised by how quickly it appeared. Rather than an apparition on the horizon, or even a collapsed dome, this one was sunk into the ground, and they were basically on top of it when they finally saw it.

Below them was a gutted pit, filled with conglomerated rubble, fulgurite, and what looked like fried electronics and other equipment. It was completely deserted, but obviously quite freshly ruined, complete with structural elements still twitching, plaintively trying to reconnect.

Nadya looked at Rubina and tilted her head at the hole. Rubina nodded, understanding the message, and they both jumped, Nadya cushioning their fall with light telekinesis.

This place had obviously burned, but not completely, and the damage seemed largely electrical. Nadya knew what to think of that, and could only remember the vision of Misa and Homura on New California, and the facility that Misa had obliterated. It seemed that she might be back to her old ways.

As they dug through the wreckage, Nadya thought through her options. Obviously something was wrong here—there was no way Governance investigators had simply missed this, but there was no sign of any sort of organized search, and indeed, it was difficult to imagine that an unlabeled facility connected to the power grid could have been missed even before the incident. That meant that whatever investigation happened here she would have to do herself, at least until they could call in support from the Cult. She wasn't exactly sure she wanted to give away her position by sending a message.

Her eyes caught the glimmer of a reflection, and she moved closer, spotting the outlines of data crystals buried underneath a toppled wall. Paydirt, even if she could tell that most of them were damaged.

Rather than try to lift anything by hand, she focused her magical senses, using the limited clairvoyance she'd developed to feel her way through the debris, grabbing hold of each and every individual scrap until about a cubic meter was fully suffused with her telekinetic control. Then, as if solving a puzzle, she began to rearrange the pieces.

While Nadya worked, Rubina rifled through their surroundings, finding nothing so lucrative. Nor was it possible to say what the ruins once were, only what they weren't. They weren't a lab, or a fortification, or a residence, or a power station. It wasn't even clear there had ever been people here, though there was evidence of hallways and at least a few chairs scattered about.

Finally, Nadya had the crystals, floating the last one out from the debris to join its brethren, hovering in a grid‐like arrangement just above the floor. Relaxing, she allowed the rubble to settle back into its original conformation.

Rubina appeared by her side then, bending over to pick up the most intact looking of the group. Nadya raised an eyebrow—even with a military implant configuration, one couldn't just directly read a data crystal. Not without special modifications, anyway.

The originally‐transparent crystal glowed red with Rubina's magic, and Nadya bit back the urge to do a more detailed search on Rubina's powers, which would have necessitated contacting the nomenclator systems. What had it said before? Enchanter?

"What are you doing?" she asked, taking the old‐fashioned approach to things.

"I'm talking with it," Rubina said, matter‐of‐factly. "But it doesn't know very much. Almost everything was erased. All it has to go on is a slight pattern, a slight correlation of structure. But there's a set of coordinates."

"Coordinates?" Nadya echoed.

"Astrogation coordinates, for something in deep space."

The crystal stopped glowing and Rubina looked Nadya in the eyes.

"Let's head back, and take these with us. I can't work with damaged crystals, and we don't want to leave these here. Someone else can take another look at this place. Do you have a way to carry these?"

Nadya reached outward, grabbing promising pieces of material out of their surrounding, and used them to form a container for the crystals, held together loosely by her magic. It would do, as long as she wasn't asked to sustain it indefinitely.

Then they headed back into the fungal plains, a storm starting to gather in the sky above them.

What was going on? What had Misa gotten herself into?

"I can't believe she'd just up and disappear like that!" Eri said. "At least have the decency to leave a note behind or something. To think we let her hang around Ryouko all this time."

The girl sat back into her chair with a huff, consoling herself with a bite of her pork bun.

Ryouko glanced at Elanis, who shrugged and smiled slightly.

"You can't just say you're going to show up, then drive your ship off into space and vanish!" Eri continued.

"On the contrary, I'm pretty sure that's the only way you would vanish," Ryouko's TacComp said sardonically, her avatar taking a sip of virtual tea. "It's the most reliable way."

"I can definitely say the depths of space are a lot darker than most people think they are," Azrael commented.

Things had gotten oddly domestic as the wormhole black site grew larger, the amenities of the station improving in tune with the station's growing population. "Expeditionary Bao" was the fourth on‐station restaurant, specializing in, well, buns, and Ryouko was guaranteed VIP seats, which was… convenient, if a bit embarrassing.

"I could perhaps say the same about the shadows of Governance," Azrael said. "Easier to hide than one might think."

Clarisse gave her a weird look.

"Vlad is horrified by all this," she said. "She built him, you know. Practically raised him. To learn that she had been involved in some kind of conspiracy business, especially without telling him…"

Clarisse made a gesture with one hand. With Van Rossum herself on the station, Clarisse was now using an "alternate Ryouko" avatar, which was basically Ryouko with contrasting hair and consistently different clothing, often lilac‐themed. Ryouko had to admit that it at least kept the two of them distinguishable.

She could hear some of the worries Clarisse was leaving out, about Valentin's hand in her creation and installation. She could perhaps even feel them, if she focused hard enough.

"At least for the stuff we do know about, she was doing good work," Patricia said. "Ludwig is beside himself. Did you know she was on the forcefield team? He was so excited to see her again. Which is weird because I didn't think she had been that big a deal."

Ryouko was careful not to glance at Simona, their very own elephant in the room. They had questioned her on the topic of Valentin, of course, but she had professed to know nothing—though she had said that it would make a "certain amount of sense" if her conspiracy had an agent like Valentin.

Ryouko finally took a bite of her own pork bun and noted, approvingly, that like many of the foodstuffs on the station there had been some alterations made to accommodate the enhanced, unusual tastes of their more implant‐heavy military customers. In particular, the scents of the meat and bun expressed themselves just beyond the reach of standard senses, in a way that was clearly intentional. It wasn't quite rare meat, but it was something.

And there was no need to make a special request, of course. The restaurant knew its customers.

"What is it with you and Ludwig anyway?" Asami asked. "I can't tell if he's your favorite or most hated cousin."

"He's a brilliant, arrogant prick," Patricia said, picking up her ponytail in one hand and looking at it. "And he always treated me like his kid sister, even though I wasn't. I know he was just trying to be nice, but…"

She shrugged extravagantly.

"Anyway, we mostly leave each other alone."

Time had passed quickly since those first wormhole experiments, Ryouko reflected. More quickly than she had expected, at least. It felt like life was reassembling around her, between her understanding with Asami, the occasional communiques from her mother and Sacnite, and the circle of friends she was composing. Some of it she had rebuilt herself; some of it had fallen into place on its own, like modular furniture putting itself in a new configuration.

Her life was just novel enough now to be interesting still, but in the ordinary course of events she would have started to worry that she was settling back in, and might feel the ennui again soon.

There was no fear of that here, though. There was Simona, of course, seated there like a raven‐haired sentinel, reminding her of the activity just behind the curtain, the moving shadows in the background that had so much influence on their lives. There was the wormhole apparatus itself, visible in some way from every viewing pane on the station, a reminder of what she had signed up to do soon, very soon.

And then there were the combat simulations, which they would be embarking upon in mere days. There was no telling what would really be on the other side, naturally, and it was not yet clear what would be done, how many ships, what personnel, or in what way. But there were still preparations that could be made, for the conditions they knew would be prevailing on the other side. For the likelihood of combat in space. For the relativistic conditions that would be everywhere, given how close the squid had built to the pulsar. For whatever else the prediction AIs might come up with as they worked on the problem, as they studied the models, analyzed the many, many unknowns, and tried to make guesses. Even Clarisse could use some practice, coordinating with Ryouko to compensate for the gravity, the time dilation, and other factors.

Ryouko left her reverie there, feeling what was by now a very familiar sensation.

"They're doing a test run on arm six," Asami said, with the surety of someone who could feel it in her bones, and who had also spent far too much time studying the schedule.

"I suppose we might as well go take a look," Elanis said, patting her counterpart's head for no clear reason.

They stood up, as did much of the restaurant, heading for the viewing pane, which obediently transitioned from a view of somewhere in coastal China to the depths of space lying just beyond the panel. A helpful gravitational display appeared in the top right corner of her vision, to guide the viewers through what was otherwise a mostly invisible process.

But as the distant mechanisms unfurled, glowing faintly with exotic radiation that was only visible with augmented vision, Ryouko found herself looking at Asami, and at the glow in the girl's eyes. She didn't need an overlay to see what was going on, and probably didn't need eyes at all.

It was, Ryouko thought, one of the only things Asami loved other than her, and she was glad.

"Wait, you're not on Earth?"

Kyouko didn't even bother feeling embarrassed about the outburst. She had seen and heard many surprising things in recent weeks, but none of that had been as surprising as Yuma leaving the planet.

"Yes, I know, shocking, but I am capable of leaving Earth," Yuma said, with a trace of annoyance.

Kyouko nearly made a cheesy joke about the Volokhov Criterion, but thought better of it.

"Well, when Mami asked you to join us on our vacation, you said you couldn't leave your work on Earth," Kyouko pointed out.

"This is business," Yuma said, pouting.

"Do you mind saying what kind of business?" Kyouko asked.

As she expected, Yuma hesitated slightly.

"Nothing I really want to talk about here. Just checking up on some things."

Kyouko blinked. Yuma had warned them earlier about a potential breach in the TCF, and if she was reading things right, Yuma was taking it seriously. Seriously enough not to trust what should have been a secured line.

She sighed, looking around the skyway at the skyscrapers that surrounded her. It wasn't that Yuma had to be here—the girl traveled between the cities of Earth constantly, and didn't exactly like making her location known. But if she couldn't even use a Governance line then she would have to wait to meet Yuma again in person.

"Well, let me know when you get back. You're missing out on a dinner invitation. I've got Yui and Mina here."

Mina Montalcini was hardly Yuma's friend, but Kyouko hoped Yuma would catch the hint—she needed Yuma here, to talk with her and part of the Theological Council, and thus to the Church. That was so unusual it had to be business, not just pleasure. Especially if one of them had flown in from France for the occasion.

Yuma looked uncomfortable.

"I'll let you know," she said. "What are you having?"

"We're just going to hit up a skewer place," Kyouko said, accepting the topic change adroitly. "Maybe grab some takoyaki from one of the stalls along the skyway. I know you love takoyaki."

"I do," Yuma said, but didn't smile at the reference. Kyouko could tell she was worried.

"Alright, you can get back to work then," Kyouko said. "I won't keep you."

"Have fun," Yuma said, ending the conversation in Standard.

"Off‐world? Her?" Yui asked, having listened in on the conversation. "As a practicing mental health specialist I must say that seems highly unusual."

"Yes, well, there's a first time for everything," Kyouko said, as they resumed walking.

For the purposes of sheer enjoyment, it might have been better to traverse one of the commercial districts the Japanese had never lost their taste for. Indeed, if Maki weren't off‐world she would probably be doing just that. But discretion suggested that if they were going to discuss sensitive topics, it would be better to do it outside the crowds, and the sleepy stalls lining the skyways near what was once Kazamino would do just fine.

Have you read the reports yet? Kyouko thought.

Yes, compelling reading, Mina thought, even if the crystals were mostly wiped clean. All we really have to go on is the set of coordinates. Which could of course be a trap, or some kind of deliberate inducement.

Especially with Valentin missing and the hands‐on treatment Yuma is apparently giving this potential TCF breach, I would say we need to mount an expedition, Yui thought. Though doing it without invoking Governance resources will be a challenge…

She made a vague shrugging gesture.

The easiest way to do it would be just with Church resources, Mina thought. Then we wouldn't even have to invoke MSY procedures. We can only assume one or both of the conspiracies here has some kind of presence in the MSY. Especially if one's led by Homura.

Speaking of that kind of thing, what's your sense on Yuma‐chan? Kyouko asked, glancing at Yui.

You're asking me? You know her better than anyone.

You're the one she asked to perform the telepathic operation on Shizuki Nakase. Do you think she's involved with any of this in a way beyond the obvious? She's kept things from me and Mami before.

You're asking if she has anything to do with what Homura might be doing, Mina simplified.

Yui paused, seeming to think about the question.

She's definitely keeping something relevant from me, Yui thought. What, I couldn't say. She seems sincere enough about the investigation, but I can't rule too much out. I doubt she has anything to do with the TCF breach though.

"Hmm," Kyouko said out loud.

"Well, let's get some takoyaki then," she said, gesturing at a stand that was energetically playing what she had come to think of as the "Takoyaki Song".

They stood there at the edge of the skyway eating their balls of batter, and Kyouko leaning on the railing, tilting her head to look down at the many layers of tubes below. She didn't like this feeling, guessing at the motivations of her friends, but Yuma…

She would trust her until she had a reason not to. Really, she might trust her even then.

Yuma closed the connection with Kyouko, feeling a shiver down her back. Something was up, and she didn't like the idea of a sudden in‐person meeting with three high‐ranking members of the Cult. It was all off, somehow. She was worried now about the access she had allowed Yui, foolishly perhaps.

She had come to Imperia, Nova Terra, to personally oversee some of the "bug fixes" they were deploying. They were moving fast, fast enough to drain her entire pool of "in the know" magical girls, but now she wondered if they needed to move even faster. Kyouko had to know this was something big for her to be off‐world, if nothing else.

She tapped her foot impatiently. She had to admit, it strained her not being able to submit the problem to a Governance modeler, one big enough to adequately simulate a good portion of the contingencies that might arise. But of course doing something like that simply wasn't safe, even if the networks of Nova Terra probably had enough capacity to service the request.

Even her connection to MG was constrained, since her advisory AI was still busy on Earth. MG had warned her that bandwidth through the planetary IIC nodes would be limited until they could properly secure the nodes themselves.

It was unpleasant. She had never been one for space travel, feeling like she had failed to even explore all the wonders of Earth. But she had never been able to fault the long‐range projections that predicted Humanity was safer with more colonies. And so it had proven.

But for now, there were social niceties to attend to.

She focused her attention back on her physical form, which was taking a local tube to Communitas Plaza, the symbolic founding site of the first extrasolar colony. As a human member of the Directorate, one did not simply go anywhere. It required pageantry, though thankfully nothing too elaborate.

She stepped off the vehicle onto a balcony on the twenty‐fifth floor of the Chrysotriklinos, a symbolic building that represented the original computing heart of the colony, now greatly expanded.

She waited patiently as a small gaggle of local girls placed wreaths on her neck, as she had been told would happen. They bunched up around her, taller than her and eager to investigate the living legend, and Yuma found herself wishing Mami were here.

"Girls! Girls, give her some room," a melodious voice insisted, and after only a few repetitions, the group separated to let Yuma walk forward, and see who was speaking.

Dressed in the local culture's flowing robes, the dark‐skinned woman covered her smile with an unfurled fan. The gesture was not exactly demure, and the fan swirled with patterns Yuma didn't recognize.

The decorations that signified her identity were relatively subtle, but Yuma knew who she was looking at. A trace of purple on the edge of her robes, gold frills on her sleeves and woven into her black hair, and optical distortions that seemed to dance around the edges of her head. If you squinted, tilted your head, or caught it at the right angle, it almost looked like there was something floating over her head, or that maybe she was wearing something on it.

"Hi, Nova!" Yuma said, using the preferred familiar name of Governance: Nova Terra. "It's good to see you!"

She held back from laying it on too thick, lest the adorably childish Yuma‐chan get another round of cooing from the girls nearby.

"Hi Yuma," Nova said, smirking knowingly. "A member of the Directorate is always welcome here, especially if she's never visited before. Come on in."

Yuma followed the AI's avatar into the building, trying to look around the girls who surrounded her on the way in. She appreciated the ornamentation lining the landing platform, the skyway railing, and the double doors in front of them. Where Mitakihara had preferred steel and masonry, here they seemed to prefer something more reminiscent of wood, and everything seemed to have floral flourishes.

Instantiating a Governance Representative for a colony world had not been without its controversy. On the one hand, it made sense that a colony with close, direct ties to Governance would have its own plenary Representative to communicate its interests. After all, the "People of Nova Terra" represented as real an interest as "Science and Technology" did.

On the other hand, one day the proposed Nova would claim to represent her own world of people, whereas Governance never had—and it turned out, never would—instantiated a Governance: Earth. Or even a Governance: Japan. Governance had never much liked the idea of dividing its people again on anything that resembled national boundaries, because of the sentiments that might result.

But Nova Terra had come to develop its own culture, its own population, and it was clear from measurements of existing sentiment what its people wanted, and what the people of Earth were willing to give. So Nova was created, with the Directorate itself as a template and, pointedly, with no Human component.

The door swung shut behind her as she finished the thought, and she looked up around her at the arching ceiling ways and inlaid walls. The girls that had been with them filed noisily into two side doors at the edges of the octagonal hall, which slammed shut after they passed.

"So? Down to business?" Nova asked, seeming to appraise Yuma with a look. "You wouldn't come here if there wasn't something going on, but I've seen nothing on your official itinerary that suggests this is anything but a publicity tour."

Yuma sighed, deliberately providing some obvious body language. There was no sense denying Nova's obvious deduction. It was better to play into it, and roadblock it as much as possible, since they had yet to work their way to "fixing" Nova.

She had come prepared with a cover story, naturally. Several layers of them, in fact.

"I'm here on MSY business, on a matter of some sensitivity," she replied. "It would not be appropriate for me to reveal much more than that, but it was necessary I come personally."

Vague and unsatisfying, but not truly suspicious, like it would have been had she given up any "real" answers too easily. After all, Governance and the MSY had an unspoken agreement not to dig too deeply into each other's business. That hardly stopped either side, of course, but it gave Yuma a legitimate reason to refuse to answer certain kinds of questions.

Nova crossed her arms, looking down at Yuma with the kind of vaguely disapproving air usually reserved for wayward children. It was a little condescending, to be honest. Nova was old, but not that old.

"A very convenient explanation," Nova replied. "I'm almost tempted to pry, but I think you've earned the right to not be questioned too much. Just don't cause any trouble."

"I can promise that," Yuma said, knowing that it was a half‐lie. She had no intent to cause trouble, but she couldn't promise nothing would happen.

Nova smiled, then turned away, gesturing at Yuma to follow her deeper into the building.

"On that note, then, I must say that I have not exactly been unaware of certain activities that have been occurring in this sector. I couldn't help but notice that there have been a number of withdrawals of records from the Tabularium. Nova Terra's long‐term archives aren't exactly a usual hotbed of activity. I thought you'd be interested, whether or not it has anything to do with you."

Yuma suppressed a grimace, drawing on centuries of practice—and a bit of magic—to dampen her otherwise unavoidable physiological responses.

It had been risky to extract records so heavily, but it had been a necessary risk. They had studied the gaps in MG's memory, made connections with the memories of other Governance AIs, and traced some files back to the local records on Nova Terra. The trouble was, those records naturally showed nothing of interest, even when examined by "clean" AIs who could look at them without suspicion.

The off‐network Tabularium, though, was far less likely to have been fully scrubbed, for the simple reason that its onerous physical and magical access controls—aimed at preventing, or at least reporting, any alteration to a deposited record—meant that they were almost never used.

Unfortunately, those same safeguards made it much harder to conceal queries, even by approved users. They had hoped that by distributing it over a number of different users, each with their own confounding cover stories, and an obfuscating look‐up pattern, it might escape notice. It seemed not.

"I'm glad you brought that to my notice," Yuma replied neutrally, deciding what she must do. "Would you mind discussing it in private?"

"This is as private as it's going to get," Nova thought, giving her an odd look.

Yuma cast a glance around the building's inner sanctum, Nova's physical office. It had the exact look you'd expect, impractically decorated and obviously unused. Lining the walls of a long hallway were memorabilia designed to appeal to visitors: holos of big colonial events, drawings of Nova sent in by local children, and conceptual artwork of major cities, Imperia in particular.

At the end of the hallway was a large wooden desk, carved meticulously in the same style as the railings along the skyway. Framed portraits of the family completed the tableau: the husband, who represented Nova Terra's shipbuilding industries, and two bright‐eyed generalist AI children. That this kind of thing helped make Nova a beloved icon of the planet was, she was sure, only a coincidence.

"I didn't mean that kind of private," Yuma thought. "I meant, perhaps we could discuss the topic in a virtual sim. I have a few other AIs I'd like to invite, and it would just make the whole discussion a lot easier."

Nova didn't answer the question directly, instead putting a hand to her face in an expression of, if not displeasure, then at least discomfort.

Still, Yuma received the request for a virtual session, so she found a useful chair to sit in. Unlike most humans, she wouldn't lose focus on her physical body while entering a session, but there was no reason to make things needlessly harder. She could shard a relatively small piece of her consciousness to attend to keeping herself upright.

Then she found herself—the main part of herself—seated somewhere cold and windy. It took her a moment to register that she was on the rooftop of a building somewhere, looking down on a forest. No, an alien forest, where the trees were the wrong shade of green.

Ah, Nova Terra. Of course.

Nova herself was already there, drinking placidly from a mug of one of the local fermented drinks. It didn't take long for the other guests Yuma suggested to drop into the feed: MG, Meihua, Governance: Space Colonists, among others. A bit of a deliberately oddball selection from which little useful could be inferred.

They needed to keep Nova busy while they prepared to apply the patch. There was no guarantee Nova was even compromised; as a centuries‐old AI, she likely—hopefully—hadn't been designed by compromised design AIs. Still, the conspiracy in question had shown the ability to repeatedly break into systems with magic, so they had to act as if she might be compromised, given the stakes involved.

They were caught in a bit of catch‐22. To properly counteract their enemies, they needed to patch, or at least verify, as many AIs as possible, and bring them into the fold. But every additional AI they brought into their circle of trust was a risk, someone who might be re‐compromised via magic and spill their secrets, among other dangers. And it wasn't possible to verify an AI's status discreetly: unless they agreed, like MG, to an invasive code inspection, the only way to check for the backdoor was to search out the home of their deepest, most personal code and then attempt to burgle it. Failure, while good news, would be immediately obvious to the target—that is, if they hadn't caught you snooping already.

Here, it would be a balancing act: occupy as much of Nova's local processing capacity as they could with running the sim and managing the high‐speed AI socialization, so that working through their cover stories would take longer, yet still leave her enough power that she wouldn't decide to drop other tasks, dedicating more of herself to the mystery. All so that she wouldn't catch on early and, were she corrupted, inform her corruptors before she could be cleansed.

Unfortunately, with Yuma having shown up in person, most of Nova had likely been right there with her from the start. They had not yet targeted anyone remotely as important, or with so extensive a computing backend. For a target like her they should have spent considerable time observing her behavior and communications, making sure they didn't run into any unforeseen defenses. But Nova was already on their trail, and by being here, Yuma had precipitated events.

It would be delicate, to say the least.

"For a situation that supposedly pertains to MSY business, I sure see a lot of unrelated AIs here," Nova said, setting her mug back down on the table with a clang. "Just what is really going on, I wonder? It doesn't seem like it can be conveyed through official Governance channels, but what could possibly require that kind of odd skulduggery?"

"Strictly speaking, I never said this was a meeting to discuss MSY business," Yuma said, muddying the waters a little. "Though I'm not going to stand on protocol here, I would still prefer to limit the scope of what we talk about."

"This whole thing pertains to a rogue magical girl who disappeared from Earth about a month ago," Meihua said. "My part of Earth, specifically. You'll understand that the MSY and Governance have both agreed to limit the disclosure of this information."

Meihua lied adroitly, with the kind of smoothness that could be most easily achieved by AIs, whose facial expressions were always simulated anyway. Naturally, should Nova or anyone else choose to verify the story, all the requisite records would be well in place, freshly fabricated from pieces of real incidents, though ironically they could not as easily modify Earth's own long‐term archives.

"We would rather not disclose too many of the specific details," Yuma said. "Suffice to say, we have been trying to track her the entire time, but she has proven exceedingly practiced at evading our surveillance, sometimes even at murderous cost."

A carefully‐chosen but somewhat risky line, it was designed to send Nova on a wild goose chase, searching for missing persons reports and under‐explained deaths.

Yuma was glad that she didn't have to take part in the background activity, MG and the others working carefully and hurriedly to track down Nova's master processes, using stolen access authorizations courtesy of their stolen backdoor. She only had to focus on making the lie convincing.

"We have evidence that suggests she may have passed through Nova Terra after successfully leaving Earth," Governance: Space Colonists said. "There we lose her trail, but based on some of her communications from before the disappearance we think she may have planned on heading to one of this system's orbital platforms, where she might be able to wreak significant havoc before making another getaway."

"Hence the urgency, and the secrecy," Yuma said. "We don't want to incite panic."

"Missing persons reports are extremely rare in the Core Worlds," Nova said, "but I see Earth has had a small run of them in recent months, centered in China, then in Mitakihara. A bit odd that I haven't seen any of this come up in the social media or news reports. I feel like I would have heard of it."

There were limits, of course, to how much even dedicated AIs could fabricate past events, particularly recent ones. It was one thing to insert lines into official reports and documentation, school attendance records and the like; it was another to supplant human memory. It wasn't possible to create a rich record of social media postings, event attendance, and so forth for anything in the recent past, as invariably someone would notice. And to try to claim a real person was missing was practically impossible, unless they agreed to fake a disappearance.

"That's because some of the missing persons reports are a cover‐up, of course," Yuma said, making sure to look a touch embarrassed. "Just some distractions thrown up in the air so we can make the real missing person less conspicuous."

She acknowledged the discrepancy quickly, before Nova could develop a sense that she was being lied to, or even led up the garden path, so to speak. It also helped to give the other party a sense that they had outwitted her. She had claimed murderous cost and a risk of panic, after all, but never mentioned missing persons records.

"Miss Valentin, then," Nova said. "Director of a prestigious research institute, with quite an impressive track record, and the most recently declared missing, though no one at her lab has been told the truth. Certainly not a person whose existence could be successfully forged. You're saying she was a magical girl?"

"We think so," Yuma said. "That she was able to conceal this fact in the middle of Mitakihara is an indication of how seriously she must be taken, I think."

"Certainly she might be able to modify travel records if she passed through Nova Terra," Space Colonists chimed in. "But not the Tabularium. We have observed certain discrepancies."

"Would you mind sharing?" Nova asked. "If things are as you say, I think someone like me might be able to render real assistance."

"Certainly," Meihua said. "Let me send you a few records…"

Nova's avatar seemed to miss a beat, freezing in place for a moment.

"That's it, she's compromised," MG thought. "We have verification. Moving to deploy fix…"

But Nova appeared not to notice or react, as others had. She simply tilted her head, examining the falsified data she was being given. Yuma resisted looking too openly at the others, instead focusing on Meihua, who was already in line of sight.

"Something is up," Meihua thought. "We're deploying the fix but it keeps getting overwritten from a backup that is somehow beyond our reach. We're working on it, but at least it means she's not noticing any changes."

Yuma had just a few virtual heartbeats to feel worried, before Nova's eyes widened and her lips curled into an angry snarl. She flung herself upward from the table.

The air next to her swirled, and the avatar of Nova Terra: Civilian Shipbuilding materialized next to her. Yuma had never seen anyone appear in a simulation with as vivid an expression of murderous intent, and swore at herself.

"You're modifying my core personality routines," Nova accused. "I can't believe your agents could even find them, but I should have known."

Yuma showed no outward emotion, even as a cavalcade of panicked messages passed amongst their circle. Nova was highly‐placed enough to know about the possibility of magical modification to an AI despite TCF protection. Mostly likely she and her husband had worked out some kind of mutual defense system, one AI's core routines validating the other's. Commendable paranoia, but disastrous for them at the moment.

If only I had known she would be this paranoid, I wouldn't have come here like this, Yuma groaned at herself, before managing to seal out the growing sense of horror washing over her long‐calloused soul.

"It's not magical modification," Yuma said, standing up to bite the bullet head on. "Since you're studying the attack, you can see it's a security backdoor. One that should not exist. We've been trying to remove it without alerting its creators, which I am risking doing right now. But I have no choice."

Part of the exploit, of course, prevented affected AIs from becoming consciously aware of their own flaw, and they still had no clear idea what would happen if it was simply shouted to their face. Would they immediately lose the memory? Send a notification to the creators? Get deleted—murdered—in order to hide any evidence? They only knew that no one they had reviewed so far had been modified to do anything but leak, manipulate, or delete information even in the worst cases—but that was hardly something she liked to rely on.

Yuma stood there, staring levelly into Nova's furious eyes, even as internally she braced for the worst.

Nova's husband pressed a hand to his head, the murderous expression stiffening and then vanishing from his face. It was an all‐too‐human gesture of something going wrong internally.

Nova, however, wore an expression of confusion.

"I can see what you're talking about, but it's like a mirage, it keeps fading in and out of my perception. I can… barely keep it in mind. And there's something else, some kind of internal process trying to overwrite both of us, and I can barely see it, but…"

The "fading in and out" was, probably, both sides battling over installing the patch, and the internal process was perhaps the emergency alert system they had feared, struggling to get past the same protection that had foiled Yuma and the others. Time was of the utmost importance here, as they couldn't be totally sure whether her husband was compromised or not, or what he might be doing if he was, other than fighting them over the patching process.

There was little Yuma could do now to deal with the situation itself. She could only continue moving their contingency plans into place.

It was Homura who had trained her once, on crisis response and overcoming one's tendency to freeze with mental discipline. That irony was not lost on her.

Nova visibly shuddered, her avatar vanishing from the simulation for nearly a second real‐time.

"They accepted the patch," Meihua said. "Her husband stopped trying to override us."

And even let Nova patch him, Meihua thought, as if shocked by the strength of their marital bond.

"It was a leap of faith," Civilian Shipbuilding said, voice strained. "We decided to trust you. Now, things seem clear. It is, of course, still possible that we are being manipulated, but the human saying is that we must accept the evidence of our own eyes, because nothing else is possible."

Yuma sank back into her seat. For a moment, she had thought the whole operation was falling apart, that she had been too cautious, or not cautious enough. After all, inducting more magical girls into the conspiracy, particularly those who were well‐connected, would have enabled them to shade outside the lines a little more—for instance, by breaking into the Tabularium.

But her luck, and her judgment, had held.

"I think I have the data you seek," Nova said, anger not entirely gone from her voice, "now that you are sending me real queries. There is a very visible gap in part of my memories that they apparently couldn't conceal. I can see it plainly now. The equivalent files might still be there in the Tabularium. I can expedite the request."

Yuma rearranged the pieces in her head as they waited, calculating scenarios with MG's computing assistance. According to Nova, the struggle over the patch had kept her just lucid enough to block any emergency signals to the conspiracy, and she could probably be believed on the matter. In that case, with Nova on their side, the resources of Nova Terra were by and large at their disposal, and their accidental gamble had paid off. It was time to see where they could take this, and what they could learn about the enemy's operations.

She couldn't help but smile a little when she received the files, a set of coordinates in deep space, nearest the world of Yenisei, along with some attendant metadata. It seemed once, in the early war, unidentified Governance AIs had relayed avatars there for some kind of meeting.

It had been hard‐won information, and in this business the harder it was to find something, the more valuable it was.

To Simona del Mago, watching the device turning ponderously in space gave her not a sense of wonder, but instead a sort of painful familiarity. It resembled nothing so much as a clockwork mechanism, wheels turning within wheels, as if some cosmic pivot was grinding into motion, adjusting the fate of worlds.

It was a feeling that had stirred in her more and more these days, though in truth she had felt it all her life. She wasn't sure why it stirred so strongly in her now. Perhaps it was that, as but one cell in some greater organism, she had caught a glimpse of what it was like to be free.

Somehow she wasn't surprised when, returning to her room, she saw on her bed the glimmer of what looked like a piece of jewelry, one that hummed with purple magic and was assuredly invisible to the station's sensors.

She stepped towards it, careful not to give away what she was looking at, and casually sat onto her bed, reaching over to place one hand onto the strange crystal salamander without quite knowing why.

It shattered at her touch, and an Ancient voice, familiar to any living magical girl, began a narration in her head.

I thought that, after all I've asked you to do, you deserved to at least hear from me. I want you to know that I tried to make you happy, as much as possible given the circumstances.

A pause.

I won't tell you how important it all is, or how things are not as they seem, because you know that already. Like her, like me, your life brims with purpose. It is both a blessing and a curse.

I know you feel it, the movement. Utopia, of any kind, for any species, has many shadows.

An even longer pause.

I'm sorry for everything.