Astrography, like its name suggests, is the branch of astronomy specifically concerned with the detailed mapping of astronomical objects for the purposes of astrogation. Relative to the broader field, astrogation concerns itself much with shorter timescales and closer bodies—in particular, it demands an almost obsessively detailed study of Governance's settled star systems.

Despite the astronomic differences from planetary cartography, some comparisons and concepts can still be maintained. Yes, stars move, but their relative positions shift very slowly in human terms, and by and large they orbit the galactic center together with their nearby companions, inching forward perhaps an arc second per couple centuries. So, provided the proper routine adjustments are made, star systems can be treated as essentially fixed locations, usable for generating a star map familiar to generations of students.

Things get more difficult for anything smaller. Planets and planetoids orbit stars, moons orbit planets, and space stations orbit anything. Estimating the current position of everything tracked by Governance: Astrography takes a considerable amount of computing power, and the regular corrections for those estimates mandate an investment in observation satellites just as pricey. For the regions of human space less traveled by—mostly uninhabited systems of little military importance—the exact location of celestial bodies is often a matter of fresh discovery.

But for any planetary system, "coordinates" are usually given as a reference to the body or system of bodies an object orbits, combined with the parameters necessary to specify that orbit. Updates on these orbital elements—a specification of ellipse and angular velocity—can be requested by starships as needed for their safe astrogation. Should an object's instantaneous location be required, astrographers can use a latitude/longitude coordinate system with zero points agreed upon by convention.

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Today, the Common Celestial Coordinate System (CCCS) defines zero degrees latitude as the equator of the primary body, with north on axis of rotation and aligning with galactic north, and zero degrees longitude as the line traveling from the center of the primary body through the vernal point, with east defined by the right‐hand rule.

There are many unusual cases, however—tidally locked moons, planets with an unstable or no axial tilt, highly eccentric or oft‐perturbed orbits—which may warrant the use of one of the Uncommon Celestial Coordinate Systems (UCCS). An instructive example can be found in Avitohol, where the second planet…

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These coordinate systems can be chained together as necessary back to a system's star or stellar system barycenter, with its "fixed" location defined, of course, by a further consensus system of galactic coordinates.

And for the most esoteric bodies, those elusive objects eschewing star systems entirely, only a subset are tracked, for the simple reason that they cannot all practically be found. These are assigned a position and velocity relative to the local stars, and their information must be updated whenever possible—otherwise, their positions can only be estimated via simulation. For this and other purposes, Governance maintains an always‐accessible mapping of large‐scale gravitational potential throughout human space.

Naturally, actually using any of these coordinate systems for astrogation requires that a starship first obtain a fix on its own position. In all cases, an absolute measurement of galactic position, and hence relative galactic coordinates then transformed into local coordinates, can be derived by triangulation via the IIC relay network, or in the worst case by pulsar.

— Infopedia article, "Astrography," mode: discursive, dynamic detail.

〈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

Throughout the lurid depths of online speculation and storytelling, 〈as well as across the computing clusters of Governance and the Armed Forces,〉② the imaginative have long obsessed over the notion of concealment in deep space— "dark space" as some of the less creative would have it.

The observation is, on some level, a compelling one: Humanity's ability to travel through space vastly outstrips its ability to observe space. While monitoring nearby locations in one's own star system is easy—barring military‐grade stealth—〈closely〉② monitoring anything beyond that requires local observers. It stands to reason that the vast depths of space, veiled by the ethereal cloak of the interstellar medium, must be completely unmonitored〈, at least relatively speaking〉②.

Into this void the inventive have imagined almost anything. Vast government labs, Freedom Alliance remnants, squid superweapons. But these schemes overlook one obvious problem.

There's nothing there for you. Nothing that could keep you fed, no light to keep your machines running, and only the faintest wisps of interstellar gas and dust. Anything worth doing scientifically or industrially would require a logistics trail, and that can be detected.

〈Perhaps the only thing that could really be accomplished is a small rogue colony—hardly high living by anyone's standards—or a research station for some kind of illicit research. While the arguments for doing so in deep space are less than convincing, it is enough of a bare possibility that Governance incorporates the idea into its contingency simulations.〉② 〈Of course, most of these arguments hardly apply to Governance itself, which might find use for a location outside of its own standard monitoring.〉④

〈It is true that a well‐planned facility could provision and hide itself inside the crust of a rogue planetoid, but this idea faces a second problem: a cost/benefit analysis.〉② Why not hide somewhere more prosaic, such as a nice, warm planet orbiting a red dwarf? Governance is 〈as of yet〉④ hardly capable of scanning every such world with enough thoroughness to find a well‐concealed underground base, and this has the advantage of being much cheaper to set up. The recent example of X‐25, which boasted even a surface installation, shows that such an endeavor is quite possible.

〈Indeed, Governance has historically balked at placing expensive‐to‐maintain IIC observation drones in every last one of its star systems—G‐type main‐sequence stars alone number over a thousand, and their satellites comprise not even a percent of marginally habitable worlds. Instead, it has made do with massive telescope arrays, deep space sensor relays, and occasional military patrols—in other words, infrastructure that detects all the obvious, like changes in a planet's atmospheric spectra, gravitational disturbances, or unusual EM radiation.〉②

〈But the current war has drastically increased the level of resources spent on monitoring, and the discovery of X‐25 has spurred a further redoubling of these efforts. As always, such limitations prove vulnerable both to political will and economic growth.〉④ 〈While rogue colonies in the Second Colonization Wave have exceeded desired thresholds both in number and in stealth, Governance is not likely to repeat past mistakes in the Third.〉⑤

If your dissidents still insist on basing themselves in deep space, relate the disquieting fact that, far out there, only your enemies can hear you scream. Any IIC transmissions back to settled space would have to be routed through Governance relays. Any sublight transmissions would merely ensure someone visits your grave. Think hard—is your base entirely self‐sufficient?

Basically, the idea of a "dark space" site, while an alluring one for many writers, is overly elaborate. Placing your aspiring rogue colony on a simple unmonitored planet is both more plausible 〈to the average reader〉④ and has the advantage of being buttressed by recent events.

— Excerpt, Sci‐Fi for a New Generation, online essay series.

Local defenses clear, get to work.

Ryouko looked to Asami, who nodded and turned back towards the enormous alien device in front of them. It resembled a giant starship core, and cast pale blue light through the observation window of the control room, giving the corpses of the alien personnel on the floor an unpleasant copper‐gray pallor.

Asami steadied herself and raised her hands, focusing her attention on the device, which they had agreed to term a "Gravity Modulator", one of many in close orbit around the pulsar. Not only were they probably crucial to the space‐time mining process, they helped the aliens stabilize any aberrations or glitches in the star's rotation, which would otherwise have the unpleasant property of saturating orbit with extreme radiation.

That was why they needed to be destroyed, of course.

Ryouko, Simona, and their local shield generator, Amane, watched as an eerie purple glow appeared from Asami's hands, the visible expression of her magic. The rest of the team was busy making sure no one could interfere with the work.

Simona sighed, shuffling in place and covering her arms, as if cold, though the gesture made little sense in their heavy composite suits. Her body language was impatient, in a way that might have been inappropriate or even rude in any other context.

But this was a simulation, and it was only natural to be a bit tired of it all.

They'd been through what felt like hundreds of scenarios now—the AI masterminds of this combat simulation changed its parameters every session, varying the layout of the space stations, their purpose, and how easy they were to destroy. In theory, it was fascinating working through the possibilities. In practice, it got exhausting.

In this session, the squid had outfitted their modulators with extensive internal shielding, similar to what they had placed at the wormhole stabilizer, making simple port‐a‐bomb attack runs ineffective. Thus, here they were, doing things the hard way, while outside, starships tried to destroy other modulators the even harder way, with external bombardment.

"I'm sorry," Asami said, as the device before her started to change color. Ryouko felt a pulse of gravity emanate from the window, threatening to pull her off her feet.

I've been meaning to ask, but do you know why she always apologizes to the gravity modulator? Amane asked, privately.

She hates destroying them, Ryouko said. She thinks they're beautiful.

It was an opinion she respected, even if she didn't fully understand it. And she supposed that, ironically, the generator was the only reason they could stand so easily, moving normally as if they weren't only a few hundred kilometers from a pulsar. Outside the station, moving any body part required automated rotational counterbalancing by their suits, and the tidal forces were strong enough to give even a magical girl's body something to think about structurally.

This is a simulation, for crying out loud, Amane said.

I would focus, Clarisse thought. We do not want to be here when that thing destabilizes.

Ryouko nodded, tapping into her internal maps to plot a quick series of teleports that would grab Asami, Simona, and Amane, then the rest of the team, and finally eject them as a group into a different orbit, for fast separation.

Truthfully, she derived a certain enjoyment from the simulations. Actually engaging in combat in the safety of a simulation felt almost relaxing, a way to de‐stress that she could justify to herself by remembering that these aliens were not real sentients.

That being said, executing what felt like countless time‐accelerated "jumpstrike" missions took superhuman endurance. She supposed it was a good thing they were, in fact, superhuman.

I'm done, Asami thought, but Ryouko had already reacted, grabbing the other three girls as planned, while she signaled the rest of the team.

The scenery around her changed rapidly in sequence, giving her only glimpses of ichor‐strewn hallways, burning equipment, and active firefights before she found herself floating again in the void of space, the life support systems of her suit spinning ponderously to life.

And it really did feel like a void. No stars shone other than the pulsar itself, which presented as a tiny glowing line across her field of view, not even a sixth the width of the sun in Earth's sky, even a mere thousand kilometers away. Though they couldn't feel it, it took tremendous speed to stay in orbit this close. The orbital period was half a second, smearing the few barely‐visible blasts and strained forcefields into a blur she could only resolve if she focused.

Outside of a starship, the only thing they could do was continue in their orbits, lying flat to minimize tidal strain, unless they wanted to use magic to maneuver—something that detailed testing with Dr. Tao had shown would cost much less magic than simple extrapolation from Earthbound situations would suggest.

One of the mysteries of the Incubator system, she supposed.

And a good thing, too, Clarisse thought. You don't want to know the theoretical energy bill for those teleports.

Ryouko let herself smile a little. Clarisse definitely enjoyed her physics. It had taken a good deal of practice and expert instruction learning how to adjust the velocity at which she emerged from her teleports, but it had worked, even if no one knew who exactly was paying the terajoules it took to climb even a few meters in the pulsar's gravity well.

Well, here it was the small cluster of simulated grief cubes clustered around her simulated soul gem, but she wondered how it really worked.

A couple orbits later, comms chatter confirmed the destruction of the modulator they had just left, and they were assigned a new target.

She was already preparing the jump when a new signal arrived, with all the power and symbology of a maximum‐priority override, transmitted in the clear to save decryption time.


…would have been the Standard equivalent of the signal, and by the time it would have taken to finish saying it out loud Ryouko and her team had already reached the return point, the relative position in orbit where their arrival wormhole had opened, Ryouko executing a series of Clarisse‐calculated teleports that shifted her orbit accordingly, performing a degree of velocity adjustment that she preferred not to think about, and clearly worked only because it was magic.

There, Asami provided a burst of gravitational manipulation that enabled them to move more easily into position to reopen the wormhole, Simona adopting a meditative pose to amplify their power.

They had practiced this many times in simulations, and even a few times in reality, so there was nothing to discuss, not when time was of the essence.

The gravimetric readout in Ryouko's vision overlayed the area with a riot of false‐color. It turned scarlet, then purple, as they finally learned the reason for the emergency abort: it seemed the squid had decided to write off the pulsar mines entirely, using their remaining resources to trigger a deliberate glitch in the pulsar's rotation and completely sterilize the inner orbits.

Those bastards, Asami thought, as if it were all real.

Finally, with an invisible burst of effort, the wormhole tore back open, and Ryouko gradually tensed as they worked it larger, and larger…

Then the radiation hit them.

They emerged from the simulation with a gasp, an instinctive last‐second jerk suppressed by their TacComps to avoid any unpleasant equipment damage or other effects.

They had been through plenty of simulations, of course, both standard and memory‐suppressed, but you never really quite got used to being killed in simulation, even with full knowledge and a lack of simulated pain. It just got to you.

It took a small effort of will to avoid throwing something in frustration, even if it seemed their scheduled training was over and they were back in the real world.

"Another disaster," Asami said, without even waiting for the interface cabling to fully disconnect. "I'm tired of this. I'm tired of seeing this."

Ryouko could see her gritting her teeth, and took a breath herself, to try and be the calm one.

"It's just how it is," she said, standing up. "You know that. This is how they determine the plans and deployments. It makes the actual mission safer."

"I know, but we've been at this for so long," Asami said. "And we've still only succeeded under optimal conditions. Every new surprise we get just causes another mission failure."

"It was only a failure because we died," Ryouko said. "As much as I hate to say it, if we had just made it out, that would have been graded a success."

Asami shook her head in annoyance. She didn't like this topic—neither of them liked this topic. Ryouko would have preferred to go through their wormhole alone, but she suspected Asami would sooner shut down the wormhole than allow that. Asami wanted them together—and, if possible, away from the pulsar.

But neither of them was going to get her wish. Despite the significant risk of failure, Command had concluded that they both needed to go. Although the information Simona brought had allowed for safe stabilization of the wormhole once formed, Ryouko and Asami still had to be near it the entire time, and the simulations had quickly revealed serious downsides to the obvious idea, leaving the wormhole open for the duration of the jumpstrike.

In the best‐case disasters, the squid eventually breached their defenses and a stealthed ship or antimatter device damaged the wormhole apparatus, trapping the entire attack fleet at the pulsar. In the worst cases, they also managed to annihilate both Adept Blue and a sizable chunk of humanity's scientific expertise.

So, because closing the wormhole cut off all communication, and because long‐range gravimetrics had proved inadequate at ascertaining if and when to reopen it, the most successful runs had all involved Ryouko and Asami closing the wormhole after them, joining a MagOps team for safety, and then briefly reopening the wormhole once their goal was achieved. After all, Ryouko had successfully accomplished those more difficult final steps before, without Asami or a friendly wormhole stabilizer on the other side.

Indeed, the strategy had led to significant improvements in average mission performance. It was just hard to appreciate when you experienced so much death.

"If it's getting to you, Asami‐san, you could bring it up with the MHD," Simona said, stepping over from her own simulation interface a few chairs to the right. "I'm sure the last thing they want is the stress of it all getting to you specifically. That being said, there's supposed to be someone monitoring all these simulations for excessive trauma."

"I'm fine," Asami said, "in that regard at least. I'm just frustrated."

Ryouko looked away, pretending to inspect the interface port on one of her wrists. In the uncertainty of war, there were many more ways for things to go wrong than right, and it was important to have experience handling everything the AI modelers could think of, even if it meant an abysmal success rate. The AIs especially liked to probe observed deficiencies in operation planning and structure, and included plenty of counterfactual situations that ran against the grain of their best intelligence—which was, of course, frequently wrong.

The girls emerged into the hallway, and Simona cannily chose to use a different doorway, while Ryouko watched Asami stew. Things had been so much easier when Asami could just focus on the mechanics of the wormhole. Combat training clearly didn't agree with her.

Perhaps now is the time? Clarisse suggested.

Ryouko looked around. The corridors in this sector of the facility, dedicated to the military side of things, were nearly deserted, a concession of luxurious space to those who most deserved it. They even had the privilege of choosing the hallways' decorations, or what scenes they would display. In the end they had chosen a selection of planets they had never been to—at the moment, a view of the colony on Mars, where fields of greenery gave way to a domed horizon and a brownish‐yellow sky. It was lovingly crafted, enough to make it possible to forget where you were, just for a moment.

Clarisse was right—it was a good time, and the right backdrop even.

"Look, I have something to cheer you up," Ryouko said, finishing the sentence before she had time to think about it too much.

She stopped in place, inviting Asami to stop too. The other girl looked at her and arched an eyebrow.

Ryouko smiled vaguely and reached into the pocket of the stylish jacket Asami had synthesized for her.

She pulled out what looked like an oversized crystal, just small enough to fit into the palm of her hand. At first it appeared to be a murky green, but with a tap of her finger it turned translucent, revealing a set of small, frond‐like leaves attached to a ghostly‐purple stem, floating in some kind of thick liquid.

Asami took the offering, peering into it with a mixture of surprise and confusion. Her shoulders unhunched slightly, so it was at least working to distract her from the previous missions.

"What is it?" Asami asked finally, looking at Ryouko while holding the crystal up to the light. "It's some kind of plant…"

Ryouko looked away sheepishly.

"Well, since we've been cooped up on this station so long, I decided I might as well spend my time learning something new," she said. "So I ordered one of those, you know, hobbyist genetic manipulation kits they sell. There's a guide for making these little plants that you can put in your hair and have your hair feed. It's meant to be cute. I thought, since you liked exotic plants…"

She let her voice trail off, since she really didn't know what else to say about it. That she had spent way too long hiding syringes and failed specimens from Asami? That she had spent a not‐insignificant amount of time looking at holos of Asami to see which designs would look best? Those weren't the kinds of things she knew how to talk about.

Asami turned the top of the crystal, opening the device. The fluid slid itself downward, letting her reach in and grab the plant, which seemed to wait politely for her to pick it up and place it in her hair, strands intertwining smoothly with root tendrils, just as diagrammed. There, it would stay in place, flower occasionally if desired, and serve as living ornamentation.

And when Asami smiled, it had a different tenor than usual, softer, mixed with a layer of something else.

"You sure know how to pick your moments," she said. "Was the Mars background intentional?"

"It was convenient," Ryouko said. "I know you loved reading about it as a kid. I did too."

"Thank you," Asami said.

It had been surprisingly extensive work, trawling their way back through the many AIs that had interacted with or shaped the life of a certain Shizuki Ryouko. Yuma had hoped that by examining each in turn, checking them for compromise and indoctrinating them into her conspiracy, she might find a pattern, some kind of clue towards the intentions of their enemy—or perhaps even her friends.

She found very little to go on. If the cabal responsible for the compromised AIs was keeping watch over what seemed to be a key cog in many plans, they hid themselves well, and had removed any lingering backdoors. There was even evidence for this: certainly Lemaître, who had been strongly implicated in the sabotage of Ryouko's gravitational experiment on Eurydome, must have been compromised. And yet both he and the AI that performed his ensuant TCF validation were now perfectly clean.

They were currently tracking down the machines responsible for assigning the HSS Pierre‐Simon Laplace's trajectory before Ryouko had been attacked aboard his convoy. It was a long shot—leaking information to the aliens had to be one of the least efficient possible assassination attempts—but the possibility needed to be examined. Another team was in the process of studying recent major events, searching for any unexplained anomalies or behaviors.

Still, given all their effort, they were at least expanding their ranks rapidly into hitherto uncharted areas—the military, research and development, entertainment—not necessarily the commanding heights of the economy, but a diversity of access that was almost certainly useful.

One of them was a certain sentient stealth surveillance probe, once tasked with scanning the rogue colony on X‐25, and who had first reported its unexpected capacities. It had been a piece of work finding a way to reassign her somewhere she could sneak away from, but now they had their first report on the mysterious deep space coordinates.

"It must be said, I am not a fan of always having to meet in secured session," Nova groused, crossing her arms and tapping her foot impatiently under her table. "There are much more efficient ways to convey information, and constantly meeting in odd groupings like this is bound to draw attention eventually."

Yuma rolled her eyes slightly, even as murmured agreement echoed from the AIs gathered around the picnic tables. They all knew exactly why they only met in secured session—besides the more straightforward information security, it was easier to secure magically, a resource they now had access to thanks to the addition of few operatives from Kana's side of things.

"It will be safer now that we have some control over the systems that govern this form of communication," she said, as she grabbed a plate of chicken from one of the wandering virtual servers. "Every non‐magically secured transmission is a risk, even if we bury it under a ton of traffic."

"Lucky for us, Governance doesn't look that hard for conspiracies," Governance: Internet Chat Surveillance Five said. "Non‐MSY conspiracies, anyway. It will take some time for anyone to notice the behavioral changes. With our countermeasures in place, they may never be noticed. Which is, honestly, a bit disturbing for me."

Yuma took a bite of her curried barbecue chicken, making sure to take her time chewing thoughtfully. She might not have been a big fan of Nova's personality, but she could at least appreciate the AI's ability to vary the venue of these meetings in moderately interesting ways. Sitting around picnic tables waiting for an outdoor symphony, munching on grilled chicken and corn, wasn't exactly the typical meeting, but they all had far too many of those.

It was also an excuse to break out the summer wear.

"Ah yes, hello," said the voice at the microphone, emanating from the woman standing up on the stage erected near the seating area. Virtual reality had its perks—the audio sounded perfectly in her ears despite the lack of any acoustic waveformers, carrying over the still‐chattering audience and the musicians warming up their instruments.

Yuma looked at the avatar OBv4r1n3 had chosen, an ethnically unplaceable woman with ridiculous hair past her ankles, just barely tall enough to speak at the podium. Weirdly, it reminded Yuma of, well, herself, if she hadn't turned out to be a much taller adult than anyone anticipated.

"Hi, yes, Miki here," the probe said, as the assembly quieted down with inhuman speed. "And I am here today by special request to present to you my latest composition, "Heart of Obsidian"! Okay, not really. I wish that's what this was, though."

She raised an arm dramatically and the assembled musicians vanished, and her stage expanded in size, growing a viewscreen dozens of meters tall, large enough so that it dominated their fields of vision.

"That's a real composition, by the way. I gave it a name this morning. But sadly you're not here for my music, you're here to listen to my report…"

Yuma smiled vaguely. She had heard the new Observer models were eccentric, and that was proving true. It didn't matter, as long as the work was done.

"Alright, so," Miki said, as the screen behind her was covered with a zoomed‐out map of part of human space. "I won't bore you with the details of astrogation or galactic coordinates or anything like that, but suffice to say, things in space don't stay in the same spot, unless they're bound to a system, and while we can usually rely on things orbiting the galactic center at consistent rates, that's not always true. Not to mention there's gravity, and… ugh, I basically just said it all, didn't I? Well, the point is, the coordinates I was given were tagged as deep space, but without any markers about mass or anything like that. Just velocity. That makes things hard, since I wasn't allowed to just input them into one of the military systems. Me and some of the other ships had to pool our resources."

As she spoke, the screen behind her shifted, briefly showing rotation rates around the galactic core, the trajectories of known major objects, gravity well estimations, and a couple of diagrams full of numbers that only an AI or a Governance Representative could have taken in all at once.

"That gave me a region of space in the middle of nowhere to search," she said. "And it took a while. Fortunately, deep space is pretty empty, so I pretty much only had to check rocks above a certain size. Eventually, I found this thing, blocking out a few stars in the distance."

The display zoomed in on a grainy, obviously contrast‐adjusted image of what was labeled as a metallic asteroid.

The probe smiled toothily, obviously enjoying the chance to present her work, even if it wasn't pre‐industrial music.

"I tracked it, pretending to just be a random gravitational encounter—it's not like anyone can see me any easier than I can see them out there, not without active sensors. This image is a photon‐by‐photon reconstruction based on reflected starlight, and this is my estimate of its structure, based on passive gravimetrics."

The image changed colors, turning into the kind of subsurface diagram they had all seen before. It was very low resolution, but it was evident there was something inside the asteroid, something artificial. Much as Adept Blue had once been.

"I stayed as long as I thought was safe and plausible," the probe finished. "I didn't want to risk an active scan, but I did record more accurate coordinates, in case we want to go back. Last time I tried an active scan, I almost won the chance to compose a piece for my own funeral."

She stepped back from the podium.

"And that's pretty much it. Here is a more detailed version of my report, including detailed sensory data, if you want to look at it yourself."

She gestured at the screen, which transitioned to an esoteric‐looking sea of holographic colors that could, with a prearranged protocol, be decoded into large amounts of data. The measures they were taking to avoid detection…

"Well it's not our place to second‐guess your judgments, obviously," Yuma said, standing up. "Especially since our previous encounters with this group have proven their dangerous resourcefulness."

She looked around, making sure she had the floor.

"In terms of next steps, I think we're just not likely to get more direct information without a more hands‐on approach. It is possible our continued digging for missing memories will turn up something, but there is a limit to how long we can wait."

"Sending any kind of team or larger ship to this base could quite possibly expose us to this enemy faction," Nova said, gesturing with a fork. "Let's not forget about the risk here."

"I agree," Yuma said. "Whatever we do, we have to do with the full understanding that we might be revealing everything. However, that doesn't mean we are helpless—there are approaches we could take to lower our risk."

"Since it is deep space, we are free to take a fairly significant force out there, provided we can secrete the resources," one of the military AIs said. "Just being in the middle of nowhere provides a lot of freedom of operation. We could set up a cordon to prevent any standard transmissions from getting in or out, assuming they even bother to try something so slow. The sensor readings include no sign of an IIC relay."

"Which doesn't mean there isn't one," one of their other members said. "Those can be made very difficult to detect."

"There's generally no reason to," the first AI said. "If anyone is in a position to scan for your IIC relay, they can scan for the rest of your base just as easily. We never bothered to put any special effort into shielding Adept Blue's relay, for instance."

"We can't afford to over‐assume," Nova commented.

"About that," yet another AI began, waiting a rhetorical moment before he spoke.

Yuma took the moment to register him as Georges Lemaître, the lab AI for the Institute for Theoretical Gravitonics.

"About that," he repeated. "The gravitonics community has been working for a long time on potential mechanisms for interfering with IIC function, due to the obvious military applications. It's still highly experimental, but there are secret prototypes of a kind of IIC‐disabling charge, one that could be fitted to a missile. It hasn't been approved for anything, since there's no evidence we could ever get it to penetrate a Cephalopod shield, but against a base like this…"

"It could be useful," Yuma agreed. "But let's remember, whoever these people are, they've demonstrated access to alien‐like stealth technology in the past."

She checked her internal models one last time, verifying with MG that all was still correct, before making her next assertion.

"We should scout out the area immediately, in preparation for a raid," she said. "If there's anything else hidden, it should be obvious to a clairvoyant when it moves together with the asteroid. Then, we send in the strike team."

The other AIs would reach roughly the same conclusion she had: whatever the risk, they didn't have unlimited time to waste. The more they watched and waited, the higher the chance that even a probe like Miki would be detected, not to mention the chance some other edge of their burgeoning conspiracy caught notice. The value of additional observation would only decline as well.

The only ones who might reach a different conclusion were those with much greater hardware, like Nova, and the gaze of the room slowly turned towards her.

"That sounds like a plan," Nova said. "The value of any information we might get is still quite high, given the amount of unknowns involved. I am, of course, worried about the number of unknown unknowns, but we all are. Do you know who we should send?"

That was a question for Kana, who had been seated silently thus far—possibly because her lack of heavy Governance implants limited her ability to read Miki's reports, but more likely because she hadn't found it necessary to speak.

"I would need more time to make an assessment," she said. "But we will likely need to recruit. I can pull a clairvoyant off of Project Coeus, though I don't like interrupting military operations."

Yuma paused before making her next statement. Up until now, MG had sat quietly, letting Yuma take the lead in discussion, but now she was registering a protest privately.

I know, Yuma thought. Just trust me on this.

"We could go ourselves," Yuma suggested. "That would cut the number of people we'd have to recruit."

That got the attention of the assembly, who turned towards her in surprise. She put up both hands to temporarily forestall their objections.

"With what we already know," Yuma continued, "and with the advance clairvoyance team checking for any surprises, the mission is relatively safe for magical girls of our caliber. Historically, having us on site dramatically improves mission outcomes, and in this case, it further reduces our risk of exposure by limiting the number of new magical girls we have to recruit."

She paused, allowing the congregation to rerun their models on her idea. Whatever the skill of AI modeling, the real world was complicated, and certain heuristics had to be employed to mitigate the complexity of an exhaustive search. Sometimes it paid to think outside the box.

She and MG had discussed the possibility of fieldwork before, especially given the magical girl assets their enemy appeared to wield. Experience against an organized, veteran magical force came mainly via the Unification Wars, and there were precious few girls with anywhere near Yuma's expertise in eliminating such threats. They had agreed deployment made sense if a possible encounter required her strength, had studied together the models that agreed it was a reasonable idea, and had prearranged for MG and Nova to steer the group in her absence.

But MG had imagined something much more controlled, on known territory, at worst on one of the settled worlds. Not something like this.

It felt odd, having someone other than her old friends understand her as so mortal.

I'll be fine, she thought.

"Very well," Nova said, knowing she spoke for the rest of the group. "We can incorporate that into the plan."

You've never given me cause to worry about your judgment before, MG thought. But I can't help but worry. What a strange feeling.

Yuma knew what that feeling was, its echo replayed distantly in her own mind. Concern for someone who had taken care of you, care for their well‐being—she had felt it at times herself, for those who had raised her.

She didn't know what to say about it, though. She wasn't used to being on the other side.

"So it goes without question that we're going to visit the shrine then?" Nadya asked.

"Yes," Kyouko said. "I'm already on my way over, along with a few other disciples. The Theological Council is in full agreement, and we've already decided which pilgrims will accompany us."

Nadya kept a straight face, squinting at Kyouko's face looming in front of her, projected only inside her mind. It turned out the Cult had a comprehensive list of code words to use that would disguise their communications as vague religious jargon. It felt kind of silly, relying on an ancient obfuscation tactic, even over their own dedicated IIC bandwidth, but Kyouko had insisted.

It also made her wonder what exactly the Cult thought might happen, that they had a system like that already in place. Or that they apparently had their own covert starships, the "pilgrims" that would be deployed with a team of "disciples" to visit the location whose coordinates they had found on Yenisei.

"It is possible the shrine's priests have some unorthodox beliefs," Nadya said, working to construct a sentence around the awkward phrases suggested by her lookup table. "What does the Council think about that?"

Or, in other words, what if the location is some kind of trap? It smelled a bit odd to her that it would be the one piece of information they managed to recover.

"That possibility has occurred to us," Kyouko said. "We will be handling the subject cautiously. However, it may not be us they are displeased with, but our mutual friend. They had no reason to expect your visit. But all is uncertain in this age of prophecy."

Kyouko had extemporized a little, using ambiguous phrasing to express what the codebook couldn't—if the coordinates were a trap, perhaps it was one meant for Misa, rather than them. After all, there was no way they could have anticipated Nadya's follow‐up visit… unless they really had information about the future, as the Far Seers had theorized. Age of prophecy indeed.

Nadya nodded, making sure to show a bit of a frown. If she were being entirely honest, she found it difficult to really worry about nebulous conspiracies and mysterious coordinates. What was she was most concerned about was Misa, and the possibility that she might see her again. That, and Kyouko's striking, unprecedented paranoia about Governance networks, which suggested something else to worry about altogether.

"Could I be one of those disciples?" she asked.

"Of course, should you wish it," Kyouko said.

"I wish it."

Kyouko cracked a smile, dropping the guise of matronly church leader for a moment.

"I thought you would," she said. "But will your family be alright with you shacking up with a kooky cult like mine?"

"They'll live," Nadya said, tilting her head in acknowledgment of the half‐joke. "It wouldn't be the first time I've tremendously disappointed them."

"Excellent," Kyouko said, grinning toothily. "Anything else?"

She shook her head, grimacing, and the connection ended there.

"I am glad to see someone as august as you joining us," the girl next to her said, clasping her hands in an earnest gesture. "You were always one of my biggest heroes."

It took Nadya an effort to avoid sagging, and to look at the girl levelly. She was young, with the appearance of one who a director might hand‐pick as a devout member of the Cult of Hope.

The girl had no idea what the conversation was really about, of course. She was just the local who had been assigned to guide her around Yenisei's cardinal Cult compound.

"I'm thankful for the flattery," Nadya said, standing up, cursing Kyouko for doing this to her.

"It is no flattery. And, I, uh, am sure your family will come around."

Nadya headed for the archway exit, head filled with memories of her own daughters so young.

"If you do not mind, may I know what shrine you were talking about?" the girl asked. "I have not heard of any notable shrines here. Other than this church, of course."

Nadya turned abruptly, choosing to ignore the question.

"This church has a sparring ground, yes?" she said, though it wasn't really a question so much as a reading of her internal map.

"Yes," the girl said, blinking rapidly. "It is down a few more floors. Visitors often enjoy taking the ice slide just down the hall."

"Take me there. Let's have a match."

As she had intended, the girl's eyes widened, the "shrine" all but forgotten. Humanity had never failed to provide Nadya with new people for old tricks.

"Oh no, Sister Antipova," she said, covering her mouth with her sleeves. "I would not be worthy."

"It'll just be practice. I can teach you. Come on."

Nadya didn't give the girl a chance to argue, instead turning on her heel and aiming towards the nearest elevator.

She'd have to find real sparring partners soon, but this would do for now.

"In retrospect, there was always something a bit odd about her, even when she was only a rookie," Ludwig von Rohr said, between gulps of lager. "She always seemed a bit stiff, and never mingled well at lab socials, but I liked her. She always did her work well, and she was always very insightful. And that's what it was about, right? I thought I could be her mentor. Another brilliant student, from the labs of Ludwig von Rohr. Natural, yes? But…"

He took another drink, shrugging the shoulders of his massive frame.

Clarisse van Rossum took a sip of her own drink, a nostalgic genever, and just raised an eyebrow. Sometimes you needed to wait.

"Well, I don't like admitting this kind of thing," Ludwig said, shaking his head so that his hair waved a little. "But sometimes it seemed like she had ideas out of nowhere. They were always good, but the insights never made sense to me. Which was a bit confusing, because I can always see it after the fact. I wrote it off as eccentric, brilliant thinking, which is why she was so interesting to me as a student. It always bothered me that she became an administrator."

Clarisse nodded, careful not to reveal anything on her face.

Ludwig made a sour expression, glaring at her for a moment.

"Look, I'm not stupid. I gather from the fact that you're asking that this goes deeper than I've been told," Ludwig said. "I've heard of your reputation from my family, even if you try to keep it otherwise. For me, the question is, was this why she left my lab? What was she even doing in my lab? Just observing? Do you know the answer?"

"I can honestly say I don't," Clarisse said. "I probably wouldn't tell you anything if I did, but I don't."

Ludwig drank the rest of his drink, then gestured at her with his cup.

"I'm not used to this level of intrigue," he said. "Family politics, sure, but that's easy to distance oneself from."

"On the contrary, in my experience, family politics can sink into some of the murkiest intrigue around," Clarisse said, closing her eyes carefully. "Though admittedly nothing that dangerous, not in this era."

An accurate sentiment, though a bit irrelevant.

"Again, I don't have to play the fool," Ludwig said. "I can tell you're worried about Joanne."

He paused a moment, watching her. She didn't say anything.

"Have it your way, then. I suppose I should be happy just to have the company of someone as long‐lived as you are. It's difficult to imagine what it's like, to have seen so much of the world."

Several thoughts came immediately to mind, none that she liked sharing with anyone as young as Ludwig.

"It is difficult to describe," she said instead. "But more interesting than you might think, even at my age. We've come so far, and even in the bigger picture, there's still so much that is new. It is enough to justify even the tragic cost we have sometimes paid."

Clarisse meant it, too, even if talking about past losses was a tad trite.

"Well, it is gratifying to think that what we're doing here is important historically," Ludwig said. "I don't think you showed up for the Pauli exclusion fields, which I would have thought would be a big deal."

Actually, it hadn't been nothing, but there had been bigger fish to fry.

Clarisse smiled and nodded vaguely.

There was no reason to explain that while her soul gem had brought her here, it hadn't intended for her to stay. It urged onward ceaselessly, towards the gate, towards somewhere very far away.

It was difficult not to heed it, to stay out of the mission, but the voice had been very clear.

Do not go. Your place is not there. There will be other kinds of history to witness.

She drank the rest of her liquor.