In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①

As the early MSY began absorbing magical girl teams at a growing pace, stretching its borders beyond the local prefecture and gaining branches in regional cities, its leadership faced a new dilemma.

Rampaging magical girls, 〈either〉① amoral villains drunk on the dregs of power 〈or girls gone insane under the stresses and horrors of their new lives〉①, had been a plague on the system from the very beginning, terrorizing weaker girls, unconcerned with the Human population, and generally out for only themselves. 〈Their psychological makeup rendered them immune to the despair‐induced deaths that, for better or worse, otherwise cleansed the system, forcing their elimination to be based solely on the consumption of power.〉①

Traditionally, such abhorrents were only eliminated after strenuous effort by other girls and teams or, in the cases of the most powerful, by ad‐hoc alliances devoted to the task. In the emerging new order, it was natural to turn to the MSY instead, which clearly had the necessary manpower. While the original charter called for informal cooperation between teams in an afflicted area, in numerous cases it had proven impossible to collect the necessary manpower before significant damage was done.

After extensive debate, several of the most powerful and willing girls were collected and placed into a new team dedicated to this task, initially headed by the legendary Tomoe Mami herself. They took to calling themselves the Guardia di Anima, the Soul Guard, and though the Italian version of the name never quite caught on, this name would eventually accrue to the organization that grew from them. They would become the police force of the MSY, the enforcers of the new order, and the nucleus of the elite military branch familiar to readers today.

〈It was also from this organization that the secretive Black Heart would eventually emerge, when necessity called. This organization, the intelligence division, black‐ops force, and secret police of the MSY, would similarly form the core of the Black Heart known today. A history of this organization is available in a separate report to readers of security clearance four or above.〉③

But as the newly formed Soul Guard proved itself capable of not merely killing, but also capturing these abhorrents, the leadership was faced with yet another dilemma, one that would help spur the MSY on the road to becoming something not seen before in the history of the world: a secret government.

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.

Look at the General Staff today, and one will find a membership much changed from before the war, when the institution was a council of Unification Era Veterans and careerist bureaucrats. Today, not one member of the General Staff has failed to prove their mettle in combat, and if there are holdouts from the prewar days, they are all holdouts who have proven their worth.

No one exemplifies this influx of new blood more than the current Chair of the General Staff, Field Marshal Erwynmark, Hero of Aurelia and Sahara, whose current position caps a meteoric, decade‐long rise from Brigadier General of Volunteers.

There is, however, one glaring exception to this general meritocracy. Despite a tremendous influx of magical girls into the officer corps, and a proliferation of magical girl lieutenant generals and generals, except for the politically appointed Tomoe Mami, not one has attained the rank of Field Marshal, or attained a seat on the General Staff.

This is reflective of two factors. Firstly, it reflects an institutional reluctance to hand magical girls any more power than they already have. It is widely felt in the military that, between the MSY, the Black Heart's subsumption of the intelligence services, and overwhelming magical girl control of the elite Soul Guard, there is no need for any more magical girl control in the military.

The second factor is more unfortunate, and is a result of prejudice among elements of the military against handing over power to what, after all, appear to be teenage girls. Despite widespread disapproval of such sentiments within both the government and the general public, such feelings have proven stubbornly difficult to stamp out.

In this case, it is telling that among the newer members of the upper echelons of the officer corps, those who have risen through the ranks through prowess in field combat, such opinions are unheard of. Such prejudices appear to be solely the domain of those officers who have never personally seen combat.

Despite this, however, the combination of institutional inertia and ingrained beliefs have made the highest tiers of the military an unexpectedly hostile place for magical girls. Antipathy for the General Staff is thus widespread among magical girls in the field.

Over the years, this poisonous state of affairs has begun more and more to concern the government. Under the combination of government pressure—via Governance: Military Affairs and Governance: Magical Girls—and continued political maneuvering by Marshal Tomoe and the more enlightened elements of the officer corps, most military observers expect that the day will soon come when a second magical girl will ascend to the General Staff.

— Avnit Hassan, "A History of the General Staff," prologue, excerpt.

Twenty‐one years ago


Mami turned at the familiar voice.

"Oh, hello, Sakura‐san," she said, smiling at the familiar face standing at the other side of the kitchen counter.

"I brought snacks," Kyouko said, using both hands to hold up a box full of assorted pastries. "From that bake shop you like. Expensive, but damned if it isn't better than the synthesized stuff."

"Of course," Mami said, leaning forward over the counter so that her apron strained over her chest. "And you didn't have to."

Kyouko made an elaborate shrugging gesture, as if to say "you know how it is." It shifted the straps of the tanktop she wore, which was noticeably different from the outfit she normally wore, day in and day out. Not big on fashion, that girl. It may have stemmed from the year or so she spent on the "street".

"Well, anyway, there's more snacks on the table," Mami said, turning back to her cooking. "I'm not quite done with the food yet, so feel free to help yourself."

As she returned to chopping her—very rare and expensive—fresh vegetables, she couldn't help but hum a little tune to herself. Her passion for cooking was one of the reasons she had paid to even have a kitchen, when most people had none.

Sometimes she thought back to her life alone, all those centuries ago. If someone had told her then that she would still be alive four hundred years later, cooking for friends, she would have laughed and thanked whoever it was for trying to cheer her up. If that same person had told her she'd be an important politician on some sort of legislature for magical girls, she would have suggested—kindly, of course—that whoever it was quickly purify their soul gem, lest they lose even more of their sanity.

But all of that had turned out to be true, and here she was, watching pots boil on a stove—thermoceramic and powered by who‐knows‐what, mind you—while waiting for friends to arrive for a party.

She spared a moment to look out the window to her right, at the futuristic metropolis of Mitakihara City, with its skyways and bustling starport, glistening in the sunlight.

Mitakihara City, de facto capital of the MSY.

Unlike some of the parties she held, though, this would be an intimate affair. Today there would be only the four of them.

The legendary Mitakihara Four, together and alone. It didn't happen often.

"Chocolate croissants!" Kyouko commented from behind her. "Well, I don't mind if I do."

"So you're here," Yuma said, sticking her head into the room and rubbing her eyes. She had been napping, a very rare occurrence for her, and it showed in her frazzled hair.

Mami paused her chopping to turn and look, at Yuma sticking her head from Mami's bedroom, at Kyouko seated on the rightward sofa leaning greedily over a coffee table of stacked pastries, at the large picture window in the back, providing another view out over the city. Many families had robotic modular furniture nowadays, but Mami could afford—and had the space for—better.

Yuma's presence was just the slightest bit awkward, since of the four of them Yuma maintained the oldest chronological age, at twenty‐seven or so. It was necessary to blend in properly with the government bureaucrats she spent so much time around. It was a little strange, though, considering the rest of them stayed fourteen or so.

"Onee‐chan!" Yuma followed up, diving down and hugging the much shorter Kyouko enthusiastically, causing Kyouko to almost drop her food. Yuma had her hair down, not having had time to tie it into the ponytail she wore nowadays.

Correction: It was really awkward. Especially since, normally, Yuma maintained a composure that was very adult and seemed… faintly seductive. There was no other way to put it.

Which was not something Mami approved of, but she generally held her silence. Yuma was more than old enough to be her own girl. Obviously. Those few years of age difference between them were meaningless in comparison to the four centuries of lives they had led.

Or should have been, at least. Somehow, in private, Yuma had held onto her status as little sister of the group. So maybe they overacted it just a little, for nostalgia's sake. That didn't change how much it meant.

Yuma smiled infectiously, and both Mami and Kyouko found themselves smiling goofily in return.

"I brought those custard pastries you like, Yuma‐chan," Kyouko said teasingly.

"Awesome!" Yuma said, getting up and heading for the table where Kyouko had dropped them.

Mami hid another smile. Once, long ago, Yuma would have said "Yay!" but that probably seemed a bit much for a "twenty‐seven"‐year‐old.

"Good afternoon," said a voice in the doorway.

"Homura‐nee‐chan!" Yuma responded, dashing over to give her a hug too, a tiny bit of custard stuck to her cheek. Homura hugged back, and smiled too, which was heart‐warming in its own way. Mami remembered a time when Homura wouldn't have responded that way.

To this day, Mami still didn't understand what had happened to her, to cause her to change personalities overnight and start spouting insane nonsense.

Enough of that, Mami thought. Not today.

"So the girl of the hour is finally here," Mami said, stepping around the counter to greet Homura. Homura, too, had taken the time to dress up a little today, she noted.

"I still say it's silly," Homura said, reaching up to pat Yuma on the head. "It's wasteful."

"You're the one who's being silly," Mami said. "How could we not celebrate your birthday?"

"Technically," Homura said, "it's not my birthday. It is merely the day I arrived at the orphanage."

"Technicalities," Mami said disparagingly.

A brief strange look passed over Homura's eyes, but she quickly followed with a "What can you do?" gesture with her hands, shrugging and smiling lightly.

"I brought fruit," she said, dropping a synthetic paper bag of the stuff on the counter.

In all honesty, Mami doubted Homura was seriously bothered by it anymore. Having the same mini‐argument year after year for centuries on end leaked any actual meaning out of the words, until you found yourself saying the same things just for nostalgia's sake. It was tradition.

Though it had been strange how much it used to bother Homura who, the first time, had mumbled something about not having had one in a long time.

"Are you going to throw the October Third party again this year, nee‐chan?" Yuma asked, knowing full well what the answer was.

"Of course," Homura answered levelly. "That party isn't for me, so I have no right to say it's wasteful."

Mami shared a glance with Kyouko.

A very long time ago, Kyouko had made the mistake of comparing Homura's criticism of her birthday party with October Third, the mysterious day where Homura would buy a cake, seal herself in a room, and sing Happy Birthday quietly to herself—as if she didn't already seem crazy enough.

Homura didn't speak to Kyouko for three days.

They were over that now, though, and the end result of the whole incident was that they somehow ended up throwing a whole party every year on October Third—for the birthday of the goddess Homura insisted existed.

Speaking of strange and awkward parties…

Though it wasn't really that bad, to be honest. It was actually good fun, and it was easy to think of it as politely attending a religious celebration for a devout friend. Only in this case the religion was rather eccentric, and the friend insisted on keeping her apartment decorated with a giant holographic pendulum and a rather… eccentric design scheme.

It was also the only party she insisted on overseeing herself, even though it was typical for Mami to always do it, though Mami had to admit Homura wasn't too bad at it.

In a strange way, all of it seemed to make Homura happier. She said her goddess would have wanted it to be lively and happy, with all of them, so she insisted they have a good time.

Those parties were some of the few times Mami felt that Homura was emotionally vulnerable. It was clear that Homura thought of her goddess as a friend, rather than as someone to be truly worshipped.

She was fond of making offhand comments that implied as much. Things like "Oh, She would have loved this dress." or "Your cakes are wonderful, Mami; She thought so too." always spoken so that, somehow, you could hear the capital S in "She".

Even so, their attempts to drill her for further information always came up empty.

Homura was always on her guard, afraid of something, and they had never gotten her to speak about what kind of girl she imagined her goddess to be, or why she thought she had ever tasted Mami's cakes.

For heaven's sake, after Sayaka's demise, they'd never even managed to get the name of the girl out of Homura again, and neither she nor Kyouko remembered it anymore.

Maybe if they could, it would be a clue, something they could look up. One of Mami's theories was that Homura's "Goddess" was actually just a dead friend of hers, someone she had worshipped and later obtained insane delusions about.

It was possible—just look at the fixation Kyouko still had on Sayaka. Maybe, if you were just a bit more obsessive…

Among other things, that was why she and, to a lesser degree, Kyouko and Yuma had spent the past few centuries hinting, cajoling, scheming, and even outright suggesting that Homura visit one of the MSY's friendly psychiatrists, someone discreet and reliable.

Mami had even gone so far as to trick Homura into meeting privately with one, which had been…

Well, the therapist—one of the best, a hybrid clairvoyant‐telepath—had fled crying from the room, and when Mami confronted Homura about her rudeness, Homura explained blandly that she had merely fed the girl a few of her more bleak memories, the ones that weren't "cosmically censored."

Message taken; Mami never tried tricking her again.

She would have had a bit more success if Yuma and Kyouko would just support her a little, but the two of them just didn't seem to care that much, and Kyouko had even gone so far as to suggest that Mami was getting a little obsessed herself.

One of these days she was going to figure out that Akemi Ho—

"Uh, Mami," Kyouko interrupted, pulling at her shirt and gesturing at the pot boiling on the stove, which was threatening to overflow.

"Oh dear, ah, I'll be right back," Mami managed politely, rushing back over. She wasn't big on thought‐controlled stoves, either.

"So how much of your primary consciousness is with us today?" Homura asked of Yuma, as Mami pulled the lid off the pot and starting hastily dropping in the soup ingredients.

"Seventy‐three percent!" Yuma announced proudly. "It's a special occasion."

"Seventy‐three, huh?" Kyouko repeated, sounding bored. "And what's the other twenty‐seven doing at a time like this, oh Public Order Representative?"

"Among other things, installing selective attention deficit scripts into the new generation of surveillance drones," Yuma said. "So they don't report seeing girls like you jumping around the tubes. Not that you'd care."

It was a gross misuse of her power, Mami mused, reaching for a pan from the cabinet.

Some people had robotic assistants for minor things like that, and Mami could have afforded one, but that just seemed like cheating.

Though speaking of robots and Yuma, Mami had always wondered how Yuma evaded the AI watchdogs, and how she subverted her own second half. She wasn't sure she wanted to know, though, honestly.

Mami turned her head, keeping an eye on the conversation behind her. They were all seated now.

"That can't possibly be healthy," Kyouko said, continuing the topic.

She leaned forward.

"Listen," she added, eyes serious. "If the computer networks went down tomorrow, are you sure you wouldn't go into some kind of coma?"

"That'd never happen. I run regular checks to make sure I still fulfill the Volokhov Criterion," Yuma said, pursing her lip. "It's a requirement."

She was peeved, as you could tell from the emergence of a slight, annoyed lisp, pronouncing "Volokhov" as "Vo‐yo‐khov".

"Well, I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I were splitting my attention like that all the time," Kyouko said, leaning back in the sofa.

Mami turned back to her cooking, reaching onto a shelf for some seasoning.

"Oh, I know what you'd do," Yuma said. "It's obvious. All those girls you know—"

"Don't make lewd faces, Yuma‐chan," Homura chastised. "It doesn't become you."

Mami started heating the pan, pouring in some oil to start the cooking process.

"Besides," Homura deadpanned. "Do it too much, and Kyouko here might start getting some ideas. We're trying to preserve your innocence here."

Mami choked back a laugh, managing not to drop her spoonful of chili sauce.

Homura and Yuma started laughing outright, both at the mockery of Kyouko and the suggestion that Yuma was "innocent" in any way.

"I hate you guys," Kyouko said. "Those are just rumors! Unfounded, baseless slander and lies!"

"You see?" Yuma said, mirthfully. "When she starts feeling guilty, she starts using bigger words."

"I see what you mean," Homura agreed mercilessly.

"Oh, come on!" Kyouko said.

"Lay off her, girls," Mami intervened, not looking away from the vegetables she had thrown in the pan. "Let's save it for after I bring out the alcohol. We can discuss Kyouko's transgressions then. It'll be more fun."

"Yeah, that's righ—Wait, what?" Kyouko began. "Not you too!"

Mami ignored her, smiling as she stirred the food below her.

"So how's your new pupil holding up, Homura?" Yuma asked, after she had finally caught her breath again, abruptly changing the topic.

"Fine, thank you very much," Homura said, rather briskly.

"You know, we have an entire structure set up for that sort of thing," Yuma commented, speaking to the girl of the hour. "Formal procedures and such. You should use it."

"Except then it wouldn't be secret," Kyouko said. "And what that's about, I'll never get."

"I don't want people treating her specially just because she's my pupil," Homura explained, a slight edge to her voice.

"We both know that's not true," Kyouko insisted. "At the very least, you could tell us who she is. But nooo, it's a secret. You know, we could find out with just a little effort. All we'd have to do is ask around. It's not possible for no one to have seen you two."

"That'd be rude, nee‐chan," Yuma said.

"See, this is way more suspicious than anything I've ever done," Kyouko complained. "But I'm the only one that ever gets made fun of."

"Oh, so that's what you're mad about," Homura said, in the tone of one who's solved a puzzle.

"Come on, you know this ain't fair," Kyouko said. "Back me up on this, Mami."

There was a pause.


But Mami was no longer listening. Instead, she was staring down into her cooking, thinking.

"Innocence," they had mentioned. Well, it had been a long time since they had possessed any of that.

They had sacrificed it all.

But it was all worth it in the end, wasn't it? This idyllic world, free of strife, endlessly prosperous.

Especially for magical girls. Truth be told, Mami could afford to hold a subdued party like this every day, if she wanted. If she had the time. If she had friends to join her.

She watched the chopped shiitake mushrooms and bamboo sizzle in the pan, but saw instead the past, everything that had happened.

This was the world they had fought for, she thought. The world they had given everyone. What did it matter how much blood stained their hands? What did it matter what they had seen and done? What did it matter if the Yuma‐chan they had once known was now nothing more than a pleasing veneer?

Wasn't it time to enjoy the fruits of their labors?

Later that night, they ate their way through the cake Mami had made for the occasion. In the corner of another table, the gifts to Homura were carefully piled, a box of chocolates from Kyouko, and—embarrassingly for the two girls who had obtained them—a pair of absolutely identical next‐generation handguns, extracted nefariously from military prototype storehouses. It was made even worse by Homura admitting that she had already acquired her own, a while back.

"Aren't you getting tired of it all?" Mami asked, finally daring to push the question, tongue loosened by just a bit of alcohol.

"Eh?" Kyouko asked, mouth full of cake.

"All this work, all this politicking, the MSY," Mami said, gesturing expansively with her arm. "Part of me just wants to stay home and have my cake, so to speak."

The other three inspected her with suddenly serious eyes, everyone except Kyouko putting their forks back down.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to bring it up now, Mami thought.

"To be honest, I get what you mean," Kyouko said, gesturing at Mami with a fork that still had a tiny piece of cake speared on it. "It'd be nice to just lie back and relax, have some fun, and throw some parties for a while. It wouldn't even have to be permanent. You could always just go back to work in a few years if you wanted."

Kyouko took a moment to eat the cake, which was layered strawberry, with lemon filling.

"Or a few decades," Mami said, eyes casting downward for a moment. "But I wouldn't want to do something like that without someone to spend the time with."

She looked up, to read their expressions. They looked sympathetic, but…

"I couldn't forgive myself," Homura said. "Or, rather, I'd want something else to do, at the very least. I made a promise, you know. I'm not sure what else I could do, but maybe I'll think about it."

"I'm sorry, Mami," Yuma said, abandoning all pretense that this was a conversation about hypotheticals. "I can't imagine leaving my work behind. Not now. Not this century, honestly."

The slight bounce that was usually in her voice was absent.

Yuma looked down into her cup of flavored sake.

"And frankly, I'd try to talk you out of it," Yuma said. "You might not think so, but the organization needs you. It needs all of us. We can't really just leave."

"It's okay," Mami said, tracing a path through the rug with her finger. "I didn't really expect otherwise."

She said that, even though she had been hoping for a slightly more receptive response.

"If you want to take some time off, I'm sure none of us will have any objections," Kyouko ameliorated. "I'll probably even go with you. Maybe just have a vacation. Certainly we could do that."

"Maybe we could take a tour of the colonies," Mami said, looking up at the ceiling, thinking out loud. "I don't think we've done enough in terms of getting to know the girls out there. So, you know, we could frame it as like work. Sort of."

"Sounds reasonable," Homura said, sipping some of her drink. "I'll see what I can do about joining you."

Yuma shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Mami," Yuma said. "I couldn't. Not unless it were a long time from now. The MSY relies on me to keep our cover from being blown, and as long as I have to be connected, I can't really leave Earth. Plus, I'd have to spend a good deal of time, um, well, making sure of things."

"Told you it wasn't healthy," Kyouko mumbled under her breath.

"Well, we'll see," Mami said, smiling amiably. She couldn't have really hoped for better, and maybe a vacation in the colonies was just what the doctor ordered…

Present Day, Present Time

Mami opened her eyes.

She had been reclining in her seat, not exactly sleeping, but dozing and thinking. Now, she stared upward, watching the stars filter through the multiple layers of transparent material between her and sky, as her vehicle drove her to the starport. Next to her lay the last few of the scones, uneaten. She had gotten tired of reading her messages, so she had taken a nap, or as much of one as she could.

That vacation had never happened. Events had intervened: the war, and all of its ramifications. Yuma had even less time now, Kyouko had her cult, and Homura… was missing.

She sighed, looking at the nearly full moon, with the familiar, pearly‐white face she remembered from her past. At the bottom one could see a bright patch of blue and green, the beginning of an ambitious plan to terraform the poles, now mostly suspended with the war. Clinging to the edge of this was the near side Armstrong Military Defense Station—formerly a scientific station—which could be discerned by the smoothly metallic sheen it gave to that region of the moon. On the invisible far side, Mami knew, was the much larger Aitken Defense Station, with its missile batteries, forcefields, heavily fortified bunkers, mining facilities, and so forth.

Who would have thought, all those years ago? Mami mused.

The forest of tubes above her was starting to grow denser and denser. Mami knew that this signaled that she was descending. Soon she would be in the subterranean networks near the starport, where the aboveground networks abruptly disappeared.

The moment she finished thinking that, it happened, the sky disappearing and Mami plunging into darkness for the briefest of moments. Then, the inner surface of the bubble around her lost its transparency, displaying Mami's preferred imagery, which was only a little brighter: a replica of the night sky, no tubes and full of stars. It brought to mind all those demon hunts in the dead of night, all those years ago.

Though Mami was aware she was romanticizing it, just a tad. After all, given the lights of the city, even back then, there was no way they could have seen the stars clearly.

Well, whatever.

And then she was there, the screen returning to transparency, showing her the brightly lit interior of an underground receiving station for the starport, one of those designated for high‐ranking military and government officials, rather than the larger, more standard public stations.

Above her, the curved ceiling was decorated with an enormous stylized representation of Human space, complete with a color‐coded network of lines indicating the standard shipping and travel routes. Out of necessity, it was holographic, so that one was looking up into the galactic plane, with various systems at slightly closer or greater distances, scale exaggerated for effect.

Like all such receiving stations, it served two purposes: to enable newly arriving passengers to meet friends, other officials, and others before departing, and to enable those fresh off the scramjet to meet their receiving party. There was a deliberate gap between the receiving station and the intra‐starport shuttles, to fulfill aesthetic considerations, and also to allow passengers to sort themselves into the right shuttles.

Her vehicle slid to a smooth stop at one of the berths, directly under the representation of Earth, rotating image of the planet overlaid by the austere symbol of the state: two white block arrows, pointing in opposite directions.

She disposed of the scones into a discreet disposal slot, and stepped out of the vehicle.

There were a few good points to being back.

"Good evening, ladies," she greeted, smiling in the direction of the two girls who had walked up to the vehicle as it approached.

"Welcome back, Mami," they chimed in unison.

Dressed in casual clothing as they were, they would have blended in with the crowds on the streets outside—well, except for their obvious non‐Japanese ethnicities. Strictly speaking, they should have been in uniform, but, as a rule, magical girls dodged wearing their formal uniforms when they could, a practice the military mostly turned a blind eye to.

Mami needed no facial recognition technology to identify her two bodyguards.

On the left, Karina Schei, the Norwegian barrier generator with the green costume and battle‐ax.

On the right, Shen Xiao Long, the Chinese teleporter, with an unusual pitch‐black costume and jian sword.

The shield and the teleporter. That was the standard bodyguard that had been designed for the highest‐ranked officers, including all full generals and, naturally, field marshals. Initially, Mami had felt guilty being required to make use of so much manpower just to protect herself, a sentiment shared by the other high officers.

After the first few months of the war, they stopped feeling guilty.

The three of them started to walk into the terminal, heading for the shuttles, Mami flanked on both sides by her bodyguards in a small triangle.

As they walked, they drew looks from those around them. The crowd here, mostly military personnel and magical girls, was a lot savvier, and didn't come crowding to look. Still, though, there were a few cries of "Mami‐san!" and "Field Marshal!" and quite a few salutes, even though, since she was not in uniform, they were not required to.

Mami smiled and returned the salute of a young second lieutenant, one standing stock‐still next to her as she passed by. The records listed him as one hundred sixty‐three, but he blushed like a schoolboy as they walked by. So did a telekinetic magical girl a few steps back.

Mami knew it wasn't just her. Put simply, she and her two bodyguards shared certain characteristics that ensured they made an impact on every room they walked into. It would have been enough to make her suspect whoever assigned them to her, except that the "who" doing the assigning was an AI who couldn't care less.

Had she really been desirous of companionship, she could have managed it easily, Mami thought. But unlike certain others—she suspected Kyouko—she wasn't willing to exploit her commander's position for things of that sort.

Mami slowed her pace, glancing around. She had a meeting scheduled here, and she didn't see the person she was supposed to meet. Until she saw her, it wasn't a good idea to hop on the shuttles.

Lithe as a cat—which it almost was—the Incubator Kyubey appeared at Karina's feet, walking through her legs and like always, seeming to come out of nowhere.

Good evening, Tomoe Mami, Kyubey thought.

"Good evening, Kyubey," Mami said, stopping and bending down to offer her arms. Kyubey obligingly jumped into them, then clambered into a perch on her shoulder.

Her two bodyguards smiled at each other, as if sharing a joke.

"Kyubey likes you the best, Mami," Xiao Long said.

"Nonsense," Mami replied. "He doesn't have any emotions. Isn't that right, Kyubey?"

That is correct, Tomoe Mami, Kyubey thought. I do not understand this constant fascination some of you have in claiming I have emotions I do not have.

"Aw, don't be like that, Kyubey," Karina said, leaning forward and tapping the Incubator on the nose. "You can admit it. We'll keep your madness a secret."

I am not insane, Kyubey thought.

Mami smiled slightly at the exchange. The newer generation just didn't understand how ruthless the Incubators could be if they wanted to be.

But, it was probably harmless.

In any case, Kyubey thought, turning its head to look at Mami. I am here to give you my regards as you leave. We Incubators would like to remind you that you are a valued contributor to preventing the heat death of the universe.

Totally insane, Xiao Long thought, shaking her head.

I am not, Kyubey insisted. However, before the three of you continue onward, I would also like to inform you that Marianne François is waiting to speak to you.

Where is she then? Mami asked. I've been looking for her.

Kyubey turned its head meaningfully to their right, and they followed its eyes.

Mami searched with her eyes for the girl, the magical girl from France with the mind‐reading powers, entangling strings, and smoothly professional demeanor, but saw no one she recognized.

Over here, someone thought, and Mami turned her attention to a nondescript female private resting on a bench. Japanese, or so she appeared.

I'll leave you to it, then, Kyubey thought, jumping off Mami's shoulder.

Mami nodded to her bodyguards, who nodded back with understanding.

Mami stopped, and walked over to a nearby bench, deliberately not looking at the girl. Just taking a break.

A few of the passerby looked over, curious, but most didn't see anything untoward.

Marianne François was Mami's Intelligence officer, and a Lieutenant General in the Black Heart, the secretive Special Operations branch of the military and government. It was also the Black Ops branch of the MSY, having in fact been founded for that purpose. It had been natural for the Black Heart to take over those operations, since they had experience and qualifications that no existing government department could match. It did, however, make the government just a little nervous.

The Black Heart was Yuma's former division. In conspiracy theory and legend, it was a secret police, an assassins' guild, a destroyer of governments, an instigator of revolutions, everything all rolled up in one.

And it was loyal to the MSY.

Mami knew about it better than most. The Black Heart was nominally a branch of the Soul Guard, after all.

Isn't this a bit much, François‐san? Mami thought, leaving her bodyguards out of it.

You wanted a private meeting, Mami‐san, the girl thought back. And you hinted it was Black. So, I treated it as such.

Black. Meaning: MSY business.

Fair enough, Mami thought, thinking that these spies enjoyed their games a bit too much. Let me tell you what I want then.

I want you to perform a thorough investigation of the grief cube supply and logistics chain, Mami thought. Report back to me about any irregularities you find, and look into the causes. Anything beyond that that you may wish to follow up, I leave to your discretion.

For your reference, I know of at least one probable irregularity. There appear to be occasional stoppages in the supply chain to some units, and I have it on good authority that it does not appear to be a technical fault. There are also allegations of damaged girls returning from the battlefield disappearing, but this is less certain, so it may also be fruitful to examine the medical departments.

There was a long pause.

That is quite a tall order, Mami‐san, Marianne thought. The entire supply chain?

Feel free to focus on what you think are the relevant aspects, but yes, the entire thing. Also, just to be clear, what I just told you should not be further relayed. Any agents you want to use should not be informed of what our suspicions are.

My agents will perform better if they are informed of what they are looking for, Mami‐san. Grief cubes are important, yes, and what you say is disturbing, but this seems a bit paranoid, especially for you. And that's coming from me.

I have a bad feeling about this one, Mami thought, thinking about the fact that Kyouko also seemed to have a bad feeling about it. I will also do my best to probe around at the upper levels, but that is not usually productive, as you know.

Understood, Mami‐san, Marianne thought. Because of how in depth this is, I might not be able to deliver full results for weeks, though I will certainly keep you informed of anything interesting I find.

That will be fine, François‐san, Mami thought.

You can call me Marianne, Mami‐san. I've said that before.

Mami got up from the bench, stretching her arms casually.

"Well, let's go, girls," she said to her bodyguards. "I'm done resting."

They got up smoothly, as if nothing had happened.

They quickly routed themselves to the proper shuttle and, as they stepped through the double doors and found a seat, the others glanced at her but politely avoided staring. Due to space and efficiency considerations—primarily because there were only a fixed number of possible ending destinations—they were obliged to ride the shuttles with others scheduled for the same flight. To Mami, it brought back memories of public transportation.

Her bodyguards scanned the crowd around her idly, even though there was no need to. It fit their training.

The ideal personal protection complement would also include a mind‐reader and a clairvoyant, but such magical girls were too rare to be expended on escorting generals back and forth among safe locations on Earth. There was a certain limit to it.

The shuttle departed, taking them for a brief ride through the building, then stopped at the civilian receiving station. It was, of course, entirely possible to take the scramjets without a final destination in space, and earthbound travel was not under military control. As a field marshal, Mami could have requested a more private flight, but there were reasons not to be that extravagant.

"Oh wow, it's Mami‐san," the murmurs began, the moment the doors opened, and people waved at her and said her name as they stepped through the doors and saw her. Some stopped and stared intently at her, trying to fix the image to send to friends.

"No need to stare people, don't block the door," Karina intoned ritualistically, getting up, and gently pushing any of them that were standing still. Of course, this was mostly just an excuse for Mami's sake.

Soon the doors closed, indicating that the shuttle was at capacity.

Mami bore their looks stoically as the shuttle again departed. After all, the looks were awestruck rather than unfriendly.

From there it was only a short ride to the scramjet itself, where they stepped into narrow moving walkways flanking both sides of the plane, directing themselves into regularly‐spaced openings leading into the plane itself. Fancy structural engineering for a fancy futuristic age.

Having timed her arrival quite well, Mami endured only a short wait inside the scramjet before it was announced that all planned passengers had arrived, except for those the system had determined were too far away to possibly make it on time. Given the to‐the‐second reliable city transportation systems, the extremely fast speed of the vehicles, and the numerous systems in‐place to yell at you in your head to get moving, it baffled Mami how you could still manage to miss a flight, especially given that it still cost a small—admittedly nominal—sum of Allocs to book a new one.

Admittedly, it was a lot more pleasant than it used to be, but it was still enough incentive for most people to try to arrive as close to the last moment as possible. That was mostly intentional, and the practice of using multiple doors at once kept lines at a minimum. It helped that carry‐on baggage was nonexistent, on the principle that flights were very short and the plane could provide everything you needed.

Overall, though, air travel was a lot more comfortable than it used to be. Synthesizers in every seat provided refreshments, snacks, and meals on‐demand, and the entertainment was, relatively speaking, top‐notch, or as top‐notch as it could possibly be given that most travelers were still obliged to sit in chairs arranged in rows. The holography was impressive, but without access to the restricted VR implants, it couldn't quite make you forget where you were.

At least there was a lot more leg room.

Beyond that, Mami was an exceptional case. Traveling in the highest‐class cabin, she and her bodyguards had a room to themselves, with beds, should they desire. Personally, they had no luggage, even of the non‐carry‐on type. They had nothing to bring in either direction.

Mami was used to traveling high‐class compared to others. She had been on many planes in her lifetime, and after the first couple of trips, the MSY was more than wealthy enough to send one of its "executives" around first class. Even if said executive looked like a teenage girl, and didn't have any official titles to speak of…

She spent the time chatting with her bodyguards, reviewing messages, issuing orders, and planning her future itinerary, more or less all at once.

One of the reasons she had been able to take leave and travel to Earth was the fact that she wasn't currently active in the field. She was "field marshal" of the Yangtze sector which, while in the danger zone for alien attack, had yet to suffer more than the occasional long‐distance raid. Inspecting defenses, dealing with bickering subordinates, and coordinating with colonial governments wasn't the most exciting job in the world, but it did provide a relatively high measure of free time.

The flight to the equatorial space elevator, anchored on a permanent adjustable platform in the ocean just southeast of Singapore, lasted a short twenty‐five minutes.

They landed at the outer edge of the city, where most of the civilian passengers navigated their way to the waiting shuttles back into the starport, while the military passengers got on a separate tram, heading for the elevator terminus, which was temporarily connected to the land.

Following the general "just‐in‐time" policy of nearly all travel, arriving scramjets were scheduled to arrive as tightly packed as possible. Thus, when Mami and her bodyguards emerged from the terminus tunnel onto the freshly‐assembled elevator platform, they found it already packed full of military personnel, with more arriving by the minute.

All things considered, it was a fairly luxurious form of travel. The platform had floor space equivalent to the average school gymnasium—or rather, the gymnasiums Mami remembered from the past. In the center was a small food stand, already doing excellent business—or it would be if the food weren't free.

Scattered around the platform were a large assortment of benches, chairs, relaxation areas, and holography displays, for entertainment. There were even a substantial number of VR booths, free for the military and their active VR implants, exorbitant for those very rare civilian travelers—who generally could afford it anyway, given that they were already paying for space travel.

The outer edges appeared to be transparent, and in a certain sense this was true, though it was really a carefully managed view of the outside relayed through the wall with fiber optics. It was a far cry from the days of the first elevators, which involved claustrophobic metal discs hardly bigger than a large room in which, for various reasons, not more than a couple of people could be placed at once.

Mami wasn't hungry, nor was she in the mood for more attention, so she maneuvered her way around several groups of people, finding a private nook near the edge to look out at the ocean and city. As she did so, there was a palpable shift in attention towards her, the standard array of murmurs and salutes and stares, but nothing overwhelming. Everyone was military.

Earlier, she had taken the time to ask about her guard's vacations, which naturally coincided with hers. Shen had taken the time for a very quick visit to family back in Nanjing. Her family was one of those which had numerous girls scattered throughout the MSY, and consequently had managed to stay cohesive and supportive despite the secrecy that had once predominated.

Such families were surprisingly common, given the tendency of family members to have similar psychological makeups, and thus similar tendencies to contract. In fact, in the relative serenity of the MSY order, there were many which considered being a Mahou Shoujo a family occupation of sorts. This raised the hackles of some of the older girls, who felt the consequent nepotism to be unfair. Others—primarily those with multiple contracted descendants—felt it to be no problem.

Theoretically, Mami did feel arrangements like that to be unfair, but had to concede that life was unfair sometimes. For one thing, all her pupils—like the newly‐contracted Ryouko—got a rather sweet deal compared to most, though she tried to make sure they earned it.

Speaking of which, she had been obliged to send a message to Kyouko apologizing and asking her to take care of things, though she assumed the girl had figured that out on her own. Mami just couldn't realistically take care of her pupils' early development nowadays.

Her other bodyguard, Schei, was, however, unique in her family, except for a distant cousin somewhere. She was a recent recruit, part of the initial boom in contracting that followed the onset of the war. Unfortunately, her family lived on Nova Roma, so it wasn't realistic for her to visit.

Schei had used the time off to play tourist—for the third time—around Mitakihara, taking in such sights as the University and nearby Science Division HQ, inside the complex near Chronos Biologics. This was part of the cluster that also contained the MSY Leadership and Rules Committee Offices, within the former corporate heart of the city. There was also the recently erected official museum, and, somewhat further away, the hybrid HQ of MSY Governmental Affairs and Governance: Magical Girls. The whole area was getting to be known as the Magi district.

Needless to say, they had all once been disguised as something else. Science Division had been the offices of Fiat Lux, a prestigious scientific organization known for supporting a variety of famous labs. The two Primary Committees had been part of the administrative offices of Hephaestus Nanotechnologies, which was thoroughly infested with MSY representatives, given that several of the companies that had been merged into Hephaestus were once MSY companies. Governmental Affairs had once been Privacy Now!, an organization of legal scholars and activists dedicated to reducing government surveillance, conveniently located next to what had once been Governance: Public Order.

Now, though, Mami leaned back against the padded seating, looking out at the city and the ocean that now intervened between them and it. Singapore, with its MSY branch offices and corporate offices, some even visible on the skyline, had once been, in what felt like ancient times, a Mahou Shoujo neutral ground, a place for nomadic poorer girls to sell grief cubes and mercenary services, and for richer girls to buy. It had been lucrative for the girls who oversaw the territory, and had been one of the natural first targets for MSY international expansion. Mami would know; she had certainly seen the city more than enough in the past.

She didn't really see any of that now, though, nor did she try to talk to her bodyguards. They understood. She was busy.

All designated passengers have now boarded the elevator platform, and the terminal has finished shifting to launch position. Elevator ascent will begin shortly,〉 the terminal warned, both in standard audio and, for the military personnel, which was nearly everyone, straight into their auditory cortices. Its voice carried a slight mechanical tinge, purely for effect; it could have been made to sound human if that were desired, but it was considered a good idea to keep machine voices distinct from human voices.

It also spoke in Human Standard, rather than Japanese. That, and the more mixed ethnicities of those around her, was a psychological signal that she wasn't in Mitakihara anymore.

Suddenly, the room darkened, the artificial lighting shutting off. There was a hush, everyone anticipating what was going to happen.

With only the briefest of shimmers, the domed ceiling lost its decorative artwork, becoming as apparently transparent as the sides around them had been. A moment later, the internal walls and partitions shimmered similarly, until they too became as transparent as air, with the exception that if you looked into a wall, you saw the world around you as if the people behind it were not there. To everyone inside, it appeared now as if they were standing under the naked early morning sky, with its stars and moon, on a metal platform. To Mami and her bodyguards, inside their niche, it appeared as they were alone there, on a ship permanently floating in the ocean.

Of course, the walls were still perfectly solid, and it was practicable only because anyone trying to move around could call up a retinal display putting the walls right back in place. The idea was generally that you would sit there and watch, however.

And then, with another shimmer, the ground disappeared, leaving them with the impression that they were reclining on couches floating twenty feet in the air, above an artificial island at night. Behind Mami, there could be seen only one object, the enormously long cable running straight into the sky, nearly invisible against its background.

Around them, there were appreciative murmurs, and some nervous laughter from the newer military personnel and magical girls. Mami and her bodyguards, well‐accustomed to the experience, didn't even stop sipping their tea.

One in every four ascents was done with the floor opaque, to accommodate those who didn't enjoy the view. Physically, the enhancement implants prevented vertigo and, among military personnel, also dampened excessive fear. Still, possessing an actual fear of heights was widely derided in the military, and for fairly good reason, considering the sort of operational environments that were prevalent on the front lines. Indeed, basic training stamped that sort of thing out, so it only occurred among recruits on their first ascent. It was a sort of benign hazing.

As an aside, the incidence of acrophobia among magical girls was precisely zero. Contracting appeared to remove such things.

With a barely‐detectable rumble, they began their laser‐launched, antigrav‐assisted ascent to the stars. Mami, like everyone, looked down at the rapidly receding ocean, the seaborne base of the elevator shrinking steadily. The intent was to give an impression of floating into the sky. In that, it succeeded. Below them, a small fleet of ships hurried in, carrying the pieces necessary to assemble the next platform, recently returned from space.

This was, in fact, the longest stretch of the trip. The four‐hour ascent time to orbit was a tremendous improvement over the three‐day transit time of the earliest‐built elevator, but it was still rather slow compared to the free‐flight rocket‐and‐antigrav ascents Mami was used to out in the non‐core worlds, where it didn't yet make economic sense to assemble a megastructure as grandiose as a space elevator. But it was undeniably resource‐efficient, and definitely preferable to the seven‐hour ascent destined for those with interplanetary or interstellar destinations.

The military was careful to include the transit time in your leave time.

Mami leaned back in her chair, looking up at the sky, eyes unfocusing, entering the tactical‐AI‐mediated dissociated state so typical of generals and government officials…

MagOps "Theban" Division, identifier 2A7DC, reports ready for redeployment, Machina's slightly machine‐tinged thoughts now nearly indistinguishable from her own. Preparing for departure to Naval Base 4E15, Neo Venezia, scheduled UT0400, final approval—

Given, Mami thought.

Settling into the flow of things, Mami's field of vision was replaced by a starmap of the Yangtze sector, with current, future, and past troop movements fully visible. In her mind, she no longer saw the world around her, or the sun that would eventually appear on the horizon as they soared ever higher, filtered so as not to blind.

Instead she saw the Yangtze Sector splayed around her, as if she were unthinkably enormous, floating among the stars. Around her, planets, bases, and ships demanded attention, glowing different colors, trailing text, prying at Machina and the doors of her consciousness. The higher priority ones did a better job of it.

Twenty‐sixth Fleet, Admiral Farrat requests approval—

Whose authority? Mami asked, reactions accelerated by the integration. Twenty‐sixth Fleet wanted to shift away from its reserve position facing the buffer zone to the boundary with the Euphratic sector, merging itself with the Fifteenth and Seventeenth fleets there. Its current and potential future positions appeared in front of her, the world shifting, bright line highlighting the best path.

Fleet Admiral Feodorovich. She—

—is anticipating alien attempts to straighten the salient at the edge and wants reinforcements to meet the anticipated action, Mami already knew.

Approved. Ask Twenty‐first Fleet to stretch its positions and double patrols. Request Huanghe sector increase warning sensor production.

At this point, Mami dispensed with the audio input, issuing orders in rapid fire, pointing and gesturing with her illusory fingers for emphasis.

Seventh Army Group redeploy to Avalon at reasonable speed. Elevate defenses of Charise System to Level Three. Request increase in MilProd factor in Sector to Four. Tell Shu Han government that their petition is denied. Tell Meiguang government to stop wasting my time with requests that will never go through. Tell New Athens I will be sure to make the battle anniversary. Tell Port Royal to increase civic defense level by two; clearly those bombers don't intend to leave them alone. Twelfth Army Group…

She continued in that vein, and it was an hour before she heard the message she was waiting for, by which point they were already well above the atmosphere, looking down at the massive orb of Earth below them and the bright light of Sol in the distance.

Field Marshal Erwynmark has announced the agenda of the next biweekly general staff meeting, Machina thought. As expected, it focuses on the Euphratic Sector Incursion.

It took that boy long enough, Mami thought. Meeting is in six hours.

He has his own way of doing things, Machina thought. Remember that he is very skilled.

Yes, yes, I know, Mami thought. Still, it won't please the others. This kind of last minute business has gotten him into trouble before.

But he made it, didn't he? And it got results.

Rushing three fleets to a position where I had to commit everything I had in the area to get in there and save him from being cut off was rather imprudent, wouldn't you say? I might not have been able to pull it off.

Yes, but you did, and because you did, he was able to trash the Saharan shipyards. I'd speculate that he expected you to be able to. He told you he had faith in you, didn't he?

If you say so, Machina, Mami thought. Sometimes she thought Machina rather liked the Field Marshal, which had some possibly disturbing implications.

It was another three hours before they reached the orbital drop‐off point, defined as the level where the angular momentum of the elevator gave them enough horizontal velocity to stay in orbit. They left behind those who were continuing upward for another three hours where, with enough velocity to escape the planet, they would detach in short‐hop Navigators to an awaiting starship somewhere farther out, or to distant space colonies.

Mami and her two bodyguards departed here, however, filing with a small crowd of personnel down a staircase that had opened in the floor, the walls and floor briefly opaque again. As they boarded their own Navigator, Mami's rank finally began to tell significantly, as the others carefully left the coveted spots near the forward viewports for her use, locating and relocating themselves to the back of the ship.

You don't have to, Mami thought, to a young telekinetic magical girl, the only other magical girl there, besides her bodyguards.

It would be rude, the girl thought, looking at her, then glancing away. Besides, what would the Humans back there think?

"Human." A succinct way of saying "Non‐Contractee."

Mami nodded and said nothing more. She had a point. No need to show obvious favoritism.

Besides, I can tell my friends I met Field Marshal Mami‐san! the girl thought, as she stepped away.

Make sure to tell them all how wonderful she is! Karina relayed back jokingly, before Mami's other bodyguard elbowed her in the ribs.

"Mami‐san" was what she was called, even by those who were not from Japan.

ETA ten minutes,〉 the robotic piloting system relayed, not even bothering with audio now that they were all guaranteed to be military.

Mami settled back into her seat, looking at the viewing port in front of them. Made from good old‐fashioned transparent material, it showed the vast black expanse of space, and the blue‐green orb of Earth below.

With a brief shudder, the Navigator detached itself from the elevator platform.

Prepare yourselves,〉 the pilot relayed over their internal intercoms. 〈We'll be losing gravity soon.

Navigators were simple, cheap ships. Carrying very little fuel and minimal engine power, they were designed solely to operate in orbit, borrowing their momentum from larger vessels and stations or, in this case, a space elevator. Eschewing even the expense of a human pilot, they had just enough power to shift between orbits and perform simple maneuvers.

Away from the front worlds and the worlds immediately behind them, it was considered poor form for even Field Marshals to pull rank and request more luxurious transportation than elevator‐boosted Navigators.

Though it suited her, Mami wondered who had started that particular custom.

Departing the platform and its expensive artificial gravity field, they lost gravity with a lurch. Mami's stomach shifted its contents, getting used to the new reality that the only force tugging on it now was the slight acceleration bursts of the spacecraft.

Behind her, Mami heard the other personnel pushing themselves off their seats into the air, bumping into each other and shoving each other playfully. Given the enhancements they all had, it was good, harmless fun, and the zero percent accident rate of Navigators gave the military confidence enough not to mandate using the seat buckles on routine trips.

In the viewscreen, Mami could just make out a point of light in the distance growing rapidly larger, knowing that soon she would see its expansive solar panels, enormous central reactor core, vast communications arrays, giant central living areas and command centers, and other features that were also very large.

Carthago Shipyard, the gigantic Headquarters of Orbital Space Command, physical home of the General Staff; and her destination.

Arriving in her living quarters on board the station, with its expansive windowed view of Earth, luxurious bed, and other amenities, Mami could only muse on what a shame it was that she was rarely here. Every member of the General Staff had a place to stay on Carthago, but it was very rare that more than a handful were physically on‐station.

Standing in front of her floor‐length mirror, she regarded herself in the dress uniform she hardly ever wore.

Military uniforms—the non‐combat kind—had changed very little over the centuries. This particular iteration of it was dark green, with the buttons, colored decorations, collar tabs, shirt design, and pants that would have been recognizable as distinguishing an officer centuries ago. There was even the perfectly meaningless field marshal's baton strapped to the waist.

The symbology was a bit different, of course. The shoulder straps she wore bore a set of crossed batons, yes, but these were flanked on two sides by reciprocal arrows. An unusual symbol of government, but that was what had been chosen. Next to that was another symbol: two block arrows pushing up against an envelope. The symbol of the armed forces.

Next to this was one that would have been utterly baffling in an earlier age. It depicted a stylized human head looking to the side. From the back of the head ran a large assortment of wires. A concession to the wishes of Governance: Artificial Intelligence, it was a reminder of what—or rather, who—made so much of this possible.

Mami then added the last part of her uniform. Standard dress uniform called for a hat decorated with the same insignia as her shoulder strap, but she had early on taken to wearing a beret instead, following the example of some of the other generals. It just felt more natural, given the beret she had worn for centuries as part of her magical girl costume.

She took a moment to regard the framed medals on her wall. Unlike so many of the others on the General Staff, she hadn't earned her rank through accomplishment on the battlefield, so her collection was sparse compared to those of the others. She had only two.

The first was the Defender's Star, First Class, for her role in the Saharan Raid, to date the largest and most successful Human incursion into alien space. It was the medal given for "Performance greatly exceeding the expectations of AI battle analysts."

The second was the Directorate Citation, for "Contributing to an exceptional degree to the wellbeing of Humanity." That one was for New Athens, of course, and had been distributed widely at the start of the war, including to Sakura Kyouko and Akemi Homura, the latter one presumed posthumously.

Then she turned and headed out her door.

For a location of such seeming importance, the meeting room of the General Staff was rather unassuming. Located deep within the military sector of the shipyard, without even windows, from the outside it was remarkable only for the concentration of bodyguards lounging around the doorway and chatting.

From the inside, it was remarkable for its old‐fashioned styling. With its real wooden table, framed portraits, and a small chandelier, it seemed to suit someone's idea of what a military strategy room should look like. It seated twenty in comfort, though that was not particularly impressive on a station such as this. Neither were the hidden holographic generators or VR relays, which were practically all over the place in the command centers of the station.

What was impressive was the prodigious quantity and quality of the security systems surrounding the room, with no less than three separate dedicated AIs designated to watching the area. So too were the dedicated communication systems, which would have been astoundingly powerful for civilian usage.

By the time she stepped in, she had already reviewed the list of active participants. Of the twenty members of the General Staff, six had excused themselves, citing critical combat duty. Of the remaining fourteen, only four were in physical attendance: herself, the young Field Marshal Erwynmark, looking spry at one hundred twenty‐two, General de Chatillon, the hard‐looking commander of the relatively serene Nile Sector, and the sharp‐nosed Fleet Admiral Karishma Anand.

There were some among the Staff who felt that these meetings were inefficient, and pressed to have meetings in a newer style, in pure virtuality and with mediating AIs, similar to what was done within Governance. Most, however, were not yet ready to take that step.

She looked around the room at the others in attendance. The members not in physical attendance were present as holographic simulacrums, and nearly everyone was already there, since it was easy to attend virtually—one didn't even, strictly, have to be seated. The only one missing was—

Hardly had she thought that when General Alexander, perpetually tardy, materialized in his seat two seats down the table from her.

Not wasting a moment, Erwynmark, who had been fiddling impatiently with one of his collar tabs at the head of the table, jumped up and cleared his throat.

"Now that we are all here," he said. "Let's begin."

An enormous holographic starmap materialized immediately above the table, then zoomed in to display a particular region of Human space. Occupied star systems, military bases, and so forth were exaggerated in scale. Here it displayed a disc of soothing blue Human space nearly bisected by an intruding dagger of angry red. Locations of recent conflict were indicated on the map, and systems and bases which had undergone heavy attack were highlighted in green. Triangles and squares indicated fleet and troop concentrations for both sides.

The Euphratic Incursion, as it was known, was now well into its third year. The alien's first major offensive since the Samsara Offensive eight years ago, it showed marked differences from the ones that had proceeded it. Gone was the strange hesitancy and showmanship of the war's earlier years—this offensive was pushed ruthlessly and efficiently.

But gone, too, were the grandiose war‐winning maneuvers that had followed, such as the enormously ambitious attack on Samsara, which had sought to cut off and capture a Core World and with it, a quarter of Human space and probably the ability to defend Earth. That one had been a debacle for the aliens, and had weakened their defenses enough to allow a major follow‐on raid, as Erwynmark had cannily realized.

This one was different. Breaking with their previous pattern of trying to keep the Human military off‐balance with constant attacks, the Euphratic Incursion was the product of years of preparation, with an investment of massive resources, the kind necessary to sustain a relentless assault lasting years. It also had relatively limited goals: the intention was apparently to cut a wide swath through the Euphratic sector all the way to the other end, forcing the elimination of a large portion of forward‐facing military outposts by helping to surround the entire region of space—alien outposts now surrounded Human space—and incidentally passing through and destroying the enormously productive Gemini shipyards. Not war‐winning, but dangerously compromising.

Human strategic doctrine had done what it was supposed to. After the rout of the initial blitz, the offensive had ground to a snail's pace on a series of carefully‐defended, heavily garrisoned colony worlds, each system designed to stand as a fortress, with heavy planetary fortifications, Oort Clouds and asteroid belts thoroughly stocked with drones capable of weaponizing the debris, countless slow‐but‐durable Guardian‐class starships, and—most importantly—the manufacturing capacity of their populations, who did their utmost to replace matériel that was often destroyed as quickly as it was deployed.

It was to buy time, time to allow the Human fleet to gather and to strike a counterblow, just as the doctrine for the whole war was to buy time, to enable mobilization and technological advance—and the remote hope for unforeseen strategic opportunities. That whole worlds had inexorably fallen, their populations resisting to the bitter end, was… acceptable. There was no other way, and the colonists knew their lot.

Defying the predictions of human analysts, who had anticipated a quick withdrawal and renewed advance somewhere else, the aliens had pushed on, turning the entire sector into a giant exercise in grinding attrition.

Now, after so long, the attack had finally reached the two‐colony system containing the Gemini Shipyards.

"We all know the situation," Erwynmark said. "The current focal point of the incursion is here"—with a gesture, the holographic display zoomed in on the relevant system—"where the system is under heavy siege, though the shipyards remain intact and functional. Currently, all production is directed right back into the battle, of course. The system is holding firm with fleet support. Given our interdicting raids and fleet action at the flanks, the enemy is having significant difficulty shifting enough resources forward to break the system."

He paused, making sure he had all their attention.

"However, I have a bit of bad news," he continued.

The display zoomed in further, on the largest of the gas giants in the system, far away from the main action, but still the site of several minor skirmishes.

"Our intersystem stealth drones detected unusual concentrations of alien ships traveling in and out of orbit around the largest moon of this gas giant. It wasn't possible to obtain better information with the drones, so General Zheng sent in a MagOps team."

The display changed entirely, from a hologram of a planet to one of an enormous enigmatic cylinder resting on its side on the surface of the moon. It appeared to be only partially complete, with a large, obvious gap on its side. Internally, they all received a set of documents detailing what could be deduced about the structure.

"This was the best the clairvoyants could do safely," Erwynmark said. "The structure is heavily stealthed, and there is only so much that can be done with visual inspection, but, as you can see, the description almost exactly matches that of the Wormhole Stabilizer we found and destroyed in the Saharan Shipyards. Given how fast construction is proceeding, it will be complete in one and a half months. That is, of course, mostly a guess."

He stopped, looking around to gauge their stunned looks.

"So this was their goddamned game!" Anand said, slamming the table with the palm of her hand. "And to think we thought they were trying to attrit us."

"Assuming what we know about the device is correct," Fleet Admiral Chang noted, pointing out explicitly what they had all deduced. "Then they could use it to pour in reinforcements from their core worlds. It wouldn't matter how tenuous their supply lines are; they could easily overwhelm the system. Of course that's not even the main point."

"The system is within blink distance of Optatum," Erwynmark said. "As of course we all know. And for all we know, with a functioning wormhole, they wouldn't even need supply lines."

Blinking referred to the aliens' ability to run circles around the Human fleet, using an enigmatic blink drive to teleport their ships up to twenty light-years at a time. This had drawbacks compared to a stabilized wormhole—a long blink required hours of charge, followed by almost as much recovery time—but the capability still posed a serious strategic threat. Captured drives had made so little sense to human scientists that they had taken to calling them "Paradox Drives", a name that had stuck.

"You still want to withdraw the frontal positions and shorten the front?" General de Chatillon sneered, looking at Alexander. "Oh, that would have been fantastic, giving away territory so they can build a wormhole right in the face of a Core World."

"The idea was that we would watch for things like this," General Alexander snarled back. "With a shorter front, we could more easily neutralize an attempt like this. And I don't recall advocating abandoning Gemini."

"Gentlemen," Erwynmark warned. "You can continue your petty disputes in private. I want plans."

"A MagOps raid," Chang suggested, without missing a beat. "We cannot shift fleet operations towards that moon without being noticed, but a stealth operation has a chance of getting through. Clearly the aliens are trying not to draw attention to it, so their defenses are not as elaborate as they might be."

"It'd be a suicide mission," Field Marshal Sualem commented. "We could never extract the teams back out safely. That's assuming they actually manage to get into the compound, which is dubious at best. And if they fail on the first try, the aliens will know we know and fortify the place."

"The nearest suspected wormhole opening is outside the sector," Mami said, folding her hands under her chin. "I would guess they intend this to be a surprise. If so, we can expect a massive flood of reinforcements the moment it is operational. They must be gathering an attack force outside the sector, near the other end. If so, they might have to strip some of their sector defenses to manage it. They may be vulnerable to being enveloped from the rear. Perhaps, with their supplies cut, they will be unable to complete construction."

Some of those at the table, including Sualem and a certain Fleet Admiral Miller, gave her a slight stare for speaking. Well, screw them too.

"That is highly speculative, Tomoe," Alexander commented, looking at her, honorific‐free, since this wasn't in Japanese. "We don't even know what the thing is made of."

"I like it," De Chatillon said. "It's always been silly having Feodorovich keep her forces in a defensive posture when the aliens have a nice big salient begging to have its throat cut."

Feodorovich had been one of those unable to attend.

"We've been over this, Chatil," Anand said. "We've tested those defenses. They are too hard for such an operation to succeed."

"Perhaps," Erwynmark said, glancing between the three of them. "But as Tomoe here suggested, that may have changed. We lose little by testing the waters. There is no reason not to ask the Black Heart to look into it."

Mami felt a few concealed glances in her direction, both from her supporters and her detractors. By rights, the current head of the Black Heart, General Kuroi—an MSY founder—should have been on the General Staff. But that would have introduced a second magical girl onto the General Staff, and that was still a little problematic.

Speaking of which, she would have to remember to speak to Kuroi‐san.

"How long would it take to properly test the question, prepare an operation, and launch, assuming Tomoe is right?" Erwynmark asked.

"Perhaps three weeks," Anand said, "Maybe four."

The other admirals nodded agreement.

"I have input the scenario into MilAdvise," General Chang commented. "Further analysis will be required, but, preliminarily, the AI advisors estimate a 57% probability that there has indeed been a major withdrawal of forces from the salient, and a 72% probability that, given there really has been such a withdrawal, an attempted envelopment would succeed."

"What is the opinion of this Staff, then?" Erwynmark asked, signaling an informal vote. Theoretically, he outranked all of them, but he rarely overruled the Staff. In fact, it had never happened. It tended to attract the attention of Military Affairs.

There were various murmurs of assent. Just the act of checking if something was true was too minor to really quibble with.

"Very well," Erwynmark said. "I will forward the instructions to Feodorovich. I doubt she will see any reason to object."

"I wish to point out, though," Chang said, "that while I see no reason not to try, MilAdvise points out that even success may be moot if the Wormhole Stabilizer goes online, even if they have to hold out for weeks with their supply lines cut. With so many unknowns in the equation, the analysts predict an 84% chance that that is indeed the case and that they can also hold out, simply given the fact that the aliens are trying this in the first place. They are not stupid."

There was sighing around the table. They had realized that, of course.

"So we are back to the wormhole again," Sualem said, leaning forward. "We still need a plan for it."

"MilAdvise predicts only a 23% chance that a MagOps operation would succeed," Alexander said. "And only an 11% chance that the involved girls will suffer less than 100% casualties. Failure also reduces the chances of success for later fleet action."

It was not good odds.

Mami could see people around the table cringing, even Sualem, who was the one who had said it was a bad idea in the first place. Whatever issues she had with him, he was competent at his job, and ferocious in his defense of Humanity.

"However," Alexander said, "they add that of the various possible fleet actions, the one with the highest probability that does not also severely compromise the defenses of Apollo and Artemis has only a 13% chance of success, with a higher absolute number of fatalities. Given that, and the fact that they cannot imagine any better plans, they recommend the MagOps operation first, as having the highest cumulative success rate."

If they lost the system, it was mostly moot as well.

"This is still a preliminary analysis," Mami suggested. "Perhaps with more time, they might come up with something more. I propose we schedule both the MagOps operation and an attack on the flanks for three weeks from now, four if it needs it, so that we can do both at once. We can cancel the latter if the signs are bad and move the first forward. Meanwhile, we try to collect more information. It's risky to wait, but hopefully we will notice if their construction accelerates notably. Of course we will monitor the situation."

"Anyone with a better idea?" Erwynmark asked, looking around. No one said anything.

"Alright," he said, leaning on the table and sighing. "I will issue the instructions. Now, before I move on to the next topic, does anyone have anything they want to ask the Staff?"

Mami looked around the table to see if anyone else had anything before standing up.

"Actually, I have a request," she said, addressing the table.

She waited a moment to make sure they all looked at her.

"I wish to request access to the grief cube supply records of all active divisions, for my personal inspection only," she said, "And I also wish to speak to MAISL. I understand that this is an unusual request, but I have received significant numbers of complaints from magical girls in the services about problems with their supply. It would aid morale significantly if I could produce a report addressing their concerns, and could possibly be used to address any real problems that exist. I don't need to remind you all how valuable our morale is to the war effort."

She left out anything about injuries and health care for now. That could wait for next time.

She held her breath.

"I don't see why not," De Chatillon said.

"If you really want to," Anand said, leaning on her elbow and peering at her. "I'd get an AI to help you. I mean, besides your TacComp. It's a lot of material."

Mami waited for one of the others to disapprove, particularly Sualem or Miller, but they remained silent. They had lost a lot of support ever since some of their compatriots had been assigned away from the Staff or retired.

"I'll send the formal requests then," Mami said, as somewhere in her subconscious, Machina did exactly that.

She had a feeling she'd have to pressure some of them a bit for the information, though.

"Is there anything else?" Erwynmark asked.

"Ah, Tomoe, you should remain standing," he added, as she moved to sit down.

They looked at him curiously, Mami especially.

"Nothing else?" Erwynmark asked, receiving a general consensus of "no."

"Alright," he said. "Then I will make my announcement."

He stood up from the table, cleared his throat, then leaned forward onto the table.

"Over the past few months, I have grown increasingly concerned with the lack of coordination among the various departments in the Euphratic Sector. While the greatly increased number of divisions and fleets, as well as the number of operational contingencies, has necessitated a greater number of commanders to manage it all, what we have gained in operational efficiency we have lost in tactical and strategic coordination. There have been numerous instances where attempted coordination has been bungled due to the differing opinions and goals of various commanders. This is not an indictment of the commanders involved; it is simply a fact of military reality."

He looked around the table to make sure they all got the gist of what he was saying.

"Therefore, after consultation with MAICC and Military Affairs, I have decided to name a new commander for the entire sector, with authority over Fleet Admiral Anand"—he nodded in Anand's direction—"Fleet Admiral Feodorovich, General Zheng, General Gatier, and Field Marshal Tsvangirai. Our meeting today has only served to reinforce my confidence in my choice. I am proud to appoint Tomoe Mami in the position. General Gong will take command of the Yangtze Sector. Relevant orders and dates are being forwarded."

Mami just stared at Erwynmark's boyish face, managing to avoid looking absolutely befuddled.

"It's an honor," she said, finally, glancing around the room.

"I protest!" Miller said, from the back of the room, finally snapping. They turned to look.

"I mean no offense to Tomoe here," he said. "But this is a poor decision. The troops will not respect a girl as their commander. Every one of us is more distinguished—"

Bullshit, Mami thought. You totally mean offense.

She grit her teeth, too angry to notice her language.

"With all due respect," Alexander said, managing to make sound "respect" sound positively disrespectful, "that is bollocks. We all know who the troops respect."

"Don't be stupid, Miller," De Chatillon advised.

"Mami will be an excellent commander," Anand said, seemingly harboring no resentment for having a new commanding officer. She had always been a reliable ally.

"You all are not thinking through the relevant issues," Sualem said, leaning forward. "They have enough power already—"

"Enough of this!" Erwynmark interjected coldly and sharply. "We are not rehashing this argument again. This is my decision. It is already done. Or would you prefer we hold a formal vote?"

There was a brief silence. They all knew which way the votes would go.

"I register my objection," Miller said angrily.

"Noted," Erwynmark responded, looking at Sualem, who deferred.

He looked around the table.

"Then this meeting is dismissed," he said.

One‐by‐one, virtual simulacra dissolved around the table, until it was only the four of them on the station.

"Don't let them get to you, Mami," Anand said, grabbing her shoulder on the way out.

"I won't," Mami reassured, heading for the door herself.

"Can you hold on a second, Mami?" Erwynmark relayed privately.

Mami stopped, letting the door close in front her. She turned around.

"Yes?" she asked.

"I have a lot riding on this, Mami," Erwynmark said. "We all do, obviously. Giving someone command authority over other Field Marshals and Fleet Admirals is unprecedented, which is why I felt I had to ask the government. I'm counting on you, just like I did last time."

"I won't disappoint," Mami said firmly, even though she had to admit to a tiny worm of doubt in her stomach.

"The commands change hands two days from now, at midnight," Erwynmark said. "Before then, do you think we could meet in the command center on station? We have a lot to discuss."

Mami tilted her head slightly.

"I'll have Machina arrange it with Rommel," she said, smiling.

Rommel was the name of his tactical AI. There were less controversial names to pick, but no one really wanted to bring it up to him.

"Alright," Erwynmark said.

Mami looked at him questioningly.

"Oh don't mind me," Erwynmark said. "I'll be here for a while longer."

Mami nodded and headed out the door, which slid closed behind her. She reunited with her bodyguards, nodding at Erwynmark's bodyguards, also in the area.

"You know, I've always thought you were Erwynmark's favorite commander," Xiao Long said, as the three of them walked down the hallway.

"Not now, Shen," Mami said, rubbing her head to nurse a sudden headache.