In terms of physics, the Instantaneous Interstellar Communication Relay network (commonly known as IIC) is a triumph of Governance, a living testament to human technological prowess and mastery of nature. A Planck‐width wormhole, capable of spanning interstellar distances, usable for faster‐than‐light communication—truly, the stuff of miracles.

In terms of practical usage, however, the IIC network is quite straightforward, at least once you move away from the details of implementation and deployment. It is defined by a series of fundamental properties:

Each connection is point‐to‐point.

The bandwidth of each connection is bounded by the limits of current photonic transmission technology.

The farther the physical distance a connection traverses, the more energy it costs to maintain.

New connections can only be established from very close distances. (about 7000 km with current technology, more in deep space)

We speak here of connections rather than wormholes, because in practice IIC uses multiple wormholes at once for increased bandwidth, and we can assume without loss of generality that each connection has a total bandwidth limited by the capability of the system to maintain wormholes.

These properties combine to ensure that the network's underlying architecture would be familiar even to the network engineers of centuries ago. The largest, most expensive connections are between planetary IIC relays, enormous constructs capable of maintaining numerous interstellar wormholes and servicing tremendous amounts of traffic. These serve as massive routers using permanent connections to bridge planet to planet, planet to space station, and so forth. Cheaper, secondary connections then bridge smaller installations to larger ones—though here it must be noted that lightspeed transmission is perfectly fine for most planet‐bound usages.

This fixed topology suits permanent installations and planets, but what about civilian ships and fleets? How are new connections made in the first place?

Here we must rely on the capability of IIC nodes to form new connections and dismiss old ones with relative ease, subject to the key restriction that the initial connection must be formed at short range. Starships use their IIC nodes to form new connections to planetary relays when they pass by, then rely on these connections until they reach the next system over.

The energy cost of maintaining such connections still applies, and ships traveling in formation, civilian or military, will rely on the larger ships to maintain distant interstellar connections, while using much shorter local IIC connections amongst themselves. In military contexts, this has the added benefit of providing instant, nigh‐unjammable communications for fleet maneuvers, using only a few highly optimized jumps to and from the nearest battlecruiser or cruiser.

While IIC's many military applications have led to rapid network expansion, the Contact War has exposed limitations to the technology not previously considered in depth. For example, improved gravimetric sensing precludes the use of all but the shortest‐range connections when stealth is a concern. And even more disappointingly, the underlying science may be at a dead end without fundamental breakthroughs. Thanks to data from the Battle of Orpheus, and to research performed with the Hero of Orpheus, Shizuki Ryouko, the large‐scale wormholes and paradox drives of the Cephalopods are now widely suspected to operate on separate principles.

Accordingly, Governance: Science and Technology has drawn down some of his enormous wartime investment into IIC research, funneling the resources instead into adjacent investigations of wormhole formation and foundational space‐time physics. Some research into IIC continues nonetheless, not least into reducing the cost‐to‐bandwidth ratio.

— Excerpt, "Introduction to the IIC Network," reading material for the seventh grade.

There is an old aphorism in the MSY: when it comes to power development, the only real limit is your imagination—well, except…

It takes almost no time at all for magical girls in their first training courses to ask about the limits on what is possible, and for the instructors to sheepishly admit that no one really knows what the boundaries of the Accessible Power Set are, other than the vague notion of the Magical Protection Principle, and infamous gaps like precognition. Many barriers have fallen: the acquisition of a de novo power, for one, was thought impossible until the late twenty‐first century. And the prospect of a telekinetic girl wielding substantial teleportation, clairvoyant, and telepathic powers—never even a legend in the early MSY—is now all but expected for a girl with a couple centuries' training.

But there are other limits, limits which stymie even the oldest and most experienced of magical girls. Some seem to follow general principles, a kind of odd magical respect for physical rules that would seem otherwise irrelevant. For instance, the observation that information is almost always difficult to summon from nowhere. You generally cannot summon a copy of the enemy's plans, unless the enemy actually has a copy of the plans somewhere, and you managed to steal them with your magic. Similarly, you cannot summon blueprints of technology that doesn't exist, generate brand new operas from thin air, or—perhaps most disappointingly—bring back the truly dead.

Other limits follow no pattern at all, or are unique even to one specific magical girl. A magical girl who can summon animal familiars finds it impossible to produce humans. A magical girl who views the past cannot choose when she sees it. A clairvoyant with permanent vision on a treasured friend cannot seem to expand it to anyone else, and so forth.

In this, we feel, there is a little bit of a pattern, a distinction between limits on developed powers, and limits on wish‐based powers, the latter of which can break numerous limitations that seem to apply to the former, but which are sometimes almost hostile to further expansion. For instance, a girl whose wish results in opera‐based attack magic might very well generate new operas all the time—but no one else can, even by imitation, and she herself finds it impossible to create, say, a ballet.

— Excerpt, "Skirting Your Limits," guest essay by Nakoma Karimov for Daredevil magazine, MSY internal.

"The environs of the pulsar will be among the most extreme any human ship has ever attempted to survive in, much less fight, but that is what we aspire to do here."

"This is a relatively small millisecond pulsar, with all its measurements at the lower end of what is possible: a rotation frequency of about 300 Hz, a surface magnetic field of only 104 T, and a radius of 10 km. This is probably not a coincidence: the Cephalopods presumably don't enjoy a pulsar's company any more than we do, and made a deliberate choice. We will be operating as close to the star as we dare, about 1000 km away. Many of the key alien installations we wish to remove are closer in than that, so it will be a delicate thing."

"Know your physical hazards, in order of threat. The first, and most important, is of course the acceleration due to gravity, which we will expect to be a mind‐boggling 2×108 m/s2. It's not as terrifying as it sounds—we will be inserting at orbital speeds, so you won't be feeling any of it in freefall, but this does mean that any action that increases altitude even slightly will require FTL‐style expenditures of energy—almost any other orbital maneuver achieving the same purpose will be preferred. All ships involved in this mission have been modified and lightened for the occasion, but that is not to be used as a first resort."

"Conversely, dropping even a little will massively increase your velocity. Yes, this does mean that bombarding the inward facilities might be remarkably pleasant, but remember that these structures orbit very close to a pulsar—they must be extremely robust."

"Remember also that while emerging so close to the star gives us both surprise and ease of attack, it does mean that there will be several sets of alien stations orbiting much farther out, as well as defensive ships. While these stations do not appear to be military in nature, the universe is impartial in all things, and they may opt to bombard you, even at the risk of destroying their own inner installations."

"And speaking of orbits, this will not be any orbit you're familiar with. Orbital velocity will be a pleasant 4.5% of c, and you will not be able to easily change this. To put it another way, you will orbit the star every 460 ms, and it will be very difficult to avoid tidally locking with the star. In fact, tidal will be the default state. Fortunately, everything we care about, friendly or not, will also be in the same position, and frankly, 4.5% of c is not that much compared to some forms of fleet combat. We also expect that the aliens will have cleaned out any remaining orbital accretion disc, but just in case, be prepared to clear out nearby orbits to make things safe for unshielded personnel and drones."

"That is all broadly familiar orbital mechanics, though the computers will have to factor in some unusual relativistic corrections. Less familiar will be the second‐most meaningful threat, radiation levels. Both we and the Cephalopods will stay well away from the sweep of the pulsar's primary radiation beams. As long as that rule is followed, the radiation damage will be tolerable, if not pleasant, especially behind shielding. The toughest jobs fall to the space personnel, who will not be able to leave their specialized suits. Don't forget that the radiation will increase in proportion to r2 as you get closer to the star, and be ready for degraded performance from the smaller automated drones."

"The third‐most dangerous effect is not a persistent one, but one you will learn from your simulations. That would be a pulsar glitch, a sudden and violent reshaping of the star itself to a more stable configuration, akin to an earthquake. This would flood the area with unsurvivable levels of radiation, killing probably everything in the system, shielded or not. Since the Cephalopods are there as well, presumably it is not a currently‐existing threat. But it is one reason you may have to bail, very quickly."

"And one more reason not to go any closer to the star: tidal forces. These, fortunately, drop off with r3, and will only be slightly uncomfortable at 1000 km, making certain rotations more difficult, and generally forcing our ships into tidal locks, as noted before. At 100 km, these forces rip apart steel. There's little need to talk about anything closer than that. The main thing to know here is that we'll enter the wormhole with a moderate rotational spin, so that we aren't fighting the star upon arrival."

"Beyond that, the hazards are nominal. At the operational distance, the magnetic field will average 1 T. High enough to impact electronics, so we have provided additional implant and hardware modifications, but nothing too serious. Again, r3 applies. Be grateful the aliens too want no part of a more standard pulsar, where you might run into magnetic fields with an energy density comparable to solid lead."

"Some of the more exotic relativistic effects that might come to mind don't really apply here, not even as much as you might encounter in fleet combat. At the chosen altitude, the combined gravitational and special relativistic time dilation factor will be 0.993 in the worst case of opposing orbits. Enough to create plenty of timing differences for your computers to chew on, but nothing to really concern yourselves over."

"Finally, recall also that the pulsar's gravity will be significant enough to cause a noticeable redshift or blueshift in EM emissions, though the effect will not be terribly pronounced except in light arriving from very close to the pulsar. In any case, the electronics can handle that."

— Vladimir Volokhov (AI), Director of Adept Blue, Introductory Remarks, delivered to the final set of personnel training for the pulsar mine jumpstrike

"In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

— Dwight D. Eisenhower, as attributed by Richard Nixon in "Six Crises"

Sneaking some of the MSY's most senior members away from their usual jobs to surreptitiously visit a deep space site was no small feat.

With the connivance of their AI co‐conspirators, they had taken breaks from their usual roles to attend what was nominally an off‐world retreat, delayed for years by political considerations. Accepting Kana's generous offer, the group of them had boarded her family vacation ship, the Megane, for a luxurious cruise through space. They had then taken a small unscheduled excursion, transferring secretly to the reconstructed HSS Raven, racing towards a mysterious set of coordinates in deep space.

There they would rendezvous with an assortment of uncrewed military vessels, each supposedly being flown by their AI to various drydocks and repair facilities for refit. These ships were carrying the remaining human personnel that would be joining them, one or two to a ship, gathering from throughout human space.

If all went well, Yuma's group would reunite afterward with the Megane, making it to the retreat with time to spare—enough to have a sit‐down with the local MSY branch and mediate a dispute between them and the military over magical girl garrison policy. There would be no gaps in the official calendars.

That was all well and good, but where the Megane had offered luxury accommodation and gourmet dining, the HSS Raven offered instead only communal bed space and involuntary company—there was only a single room not dedicated to critical ship functions. That gave plenty of time for Yuma to remember just how nettlesome Ancients could be.

"Honestly, I don't know why you insist on keeping that other ridiculous form," Kuroi Kana said, looking down on Yuma with a disapproving look. "It was cute for a while, but no one really responds to it anymore, and there are some advantages to exploiting the rest of human appearance space."

Yuma allowed herself to cast a baleful eye at Kana. That "other ridiculous form" was the child form Yuma usually kept, rather than the sixteen‐year‐old form she had currently. One that was, by the way, no younger than the form Kana herself was using.

Crossing her arms, leaning against one of the walls of the ship, Kana played the role of the disapproving mother well, presumably from long practice.

Yuma sighed, annoyed for the dozenth time that she had aged herself for this mission. Age nine simply wasn't optimal for combat, even for magical girls. Even she had to concede that.

But the others didn't seem to tire of telling her how nice she looked now, with such earnest repetition that she was sure they were coordinating against her. It didn't help that she had found herself stuck in a bit of an adjustment period, constantly surprised at how tall she was, and how small the world was now.

Yuma rolled her eyes and decided to let Kana wait for an answer, ceaselessly toying with the settings of her SW‒155 pistol. Some of the others had brought heavier equipment, but she was being realistic: if push came to shove, her best fighting experience was with her magic.

That was how she had found herself here, getting nagged by a teenager in cargo pants, a jacket, and a cap with the logo of the Arcas Star‐Shooters. She wasn't sure why Kana had chosen this particular outfit, other than to give everyone a source of amusement—which might very well have been the case.

"Yes, I know," she responded finally, ejecting and reinserting her pistol's emergency matériel cell. "But that's not really my role anymore. There are others who can intimidate for us. Or seduce, if that's what you're getting at."

It was the kind of salacious joke she liked to make to keep others off‐balance, and she remembered too late that she was no longer in the nine‐year‐old body that made the tactic more effective.

Kana rolled her eyes.

"Ask Shizuki‐san if that's what you're looking for. On second thought, if you show up now asking about that, she'll probably try to find you some eligible bachelors. Or bachelorettes. She can be relentless that way."

"Ugh, don't remind me," Yuma said, with distaste.

She didn't like thinking about Shizuki's past attempts at the matter. The woman refused to catch a hint, and seemed to take Yuma's pointed lack of interest as some kind of challenge. Even if purportedly well‐intentioned, it had been very uncomfortable. That was one advantage of the child form, that it made her lack of interest loud and clear.

Then again, Sayaka apparently pestered Mami the same way too—though she had never bothered Homura about it. Or Kyouko, for probably all the wrong reasons.

If she were honest with herself, one of the reasons she usually avoided a teenage form was its tendency to make her want to get into entanglements. Nothing she couldn't keep a lid on, but it just… bothered her.

It's perfectly natural, Oriko's voice said, an ancient memory coming back to her, unbidden. It's just part of getting older. What you have to do is…

"Anyway, don't underestimate how many people the child form still works on," Yuma said, to interrupt her own train of thought. "The vast majority of people have never met me in person. And honestly, I kind of enjoy being carried places."

"I suppose," Kana said noncommittally. "But I won't be offering to carry you anywhere right now."

"I wouldn't want you to try."

Yuma lifted her pistol, staring at it for a long while. It brought back memories of long ago, of the many times in her life where her official or unofficial role had called for a security detail, both mundane and magical. Carrying a pistol was just good policy, in case it was necessary to defend herself without an obvious display of magic.

"I can't help but feel a little nervous," Kana said, shifting the topic. "It's so unusual for a group of us to be out here like this that it feels like the world has tilted slightly. It doesn't feel right."

"It's all a bit strange, isn't it?" Atsuko Arisu said, appearing in the doorway abruptly—she had likely been listening in from around the corner. "I feel the same way. But we've taken every precaution."

"Well, not every precaution," Kana said, shaking her head.

If we were willing to be a little less secretive, she thought, we could have recruited more human personnel. More magical girls. We wouldn't have had to make this trip.

I know, but we're taking risks as it is, Yuma thought, repeating a discussion they had had several times now. Every new person, every new magical girl is a potential security breach, or a potential conspiracy spy. You've seen the risk analyses.

Ultimately, even if the unthinkable happens, and we die here, there will be others to carry on the work, Arisu thought. It would be a serious blow to the MSY, but nothing we couldn't come back from.

In terms of influence projection, the patched AIs are more important than we are, Kana agreed. Honestly, Nova alone could probably run everything if she needed to.

Yuma just nodded and stood up, causing the fire support drone she had been sitting on to make an annoyed chime.

She holstered her pistol at her side. She couldn't bear sitting still anymore, not without network access. It was like being trapped in one of Kirika's bubbles of slowed time.

She felt Arisu watching her and pretended not to notice. She knew what the meddlesome psychiatrist thought of her life choices, and had always chosen not to care. She didn't really know what it was like, being Yuma in a dozen places at once.

Still, anyone who was willing to tell Yuma to her face that she was spending too much time online was also someone who was willing to lose her access. As in, not a spy. Unless that was what she wanted Yuma to think, of course.

Bah, Yuma thought. She hated that kind of thinking. At some point you had to terminate the decision tree, and besides, there was at least one way to exercise caution with a mind‐reader like Arisu—have two or more telepaths implicitly verifying each other's work.

Indeed, Yuma had brought a small troop of specialists—gratifyingly, all prior recruits to her conspiracy. Besides Kana and Arisu, there were Charlotte Meitner and Rose‐Merline Béliar, old reliables from Kana and Yuma's inner circle, and Yuma could relate their histories without consulting a reference: Charlotte had been one of Yuma's own handpicked agents, trusted to underpin some of the less savory sides of MSY diplomacy, and first to the scene during Mami's… incident. Later, she had been trusted to act as Mami's distant telepathic monitor.

Rose‐Merline Béliar was a long‐time political ally of Kana's, dating back to the turbulent expansionary period of the MSY—which made her at least a distant ally of Yuma's as well. Political allies weren't the same as friends or disciples, but that could be an advantage when your own social circle was suspect. She had been the first recruit to Yuma's conspiracy after Kana herself.

Then there was Yasuhiro Rin, one of the less well‐known Founders, along with her wife, Jeannette Smith, who had cleansed MG of her illicit backdoor. At a mere two hundred and ninety‐five years of age, Jeannette was the only non‐Ancient magical girl aboard.

Rin was one of the MSY's more colorful characters, who had a history of spurning the MSY for her own pursuits, occasionally to the point of faking her own death. Indeed, she might have been assigned to find Homura when she disappeared—if Rin hadn't disappeared herself at the same time, after having fought valorously at New Athens.

Still, the couple's long, eccentric history had at least given Yuma a good sense of their moral compass: they were not corruptible.

And then there were the non‐magical girls.

"Status?" she asked, walking up next to the captain. Arisu had fully evaluated the crew of this ship, reading their minds with permission, before briefing them on their mission. Ironically, that made them more trustworthy than any magical girl would have been.

"Less than an hour," Captain Vera said. "The cordon ships have already begun to deploy around the site, and advance drones will be landing on the asteroid soon. Everything is nominal, so far."

Yuma nodded, wondering if the captain was capable of guessing why she was asking in person.

She turned, nodding professionally at Vlasta, one of the mundane Spec Ops commandos that would be going with them. They had been exceedingly difficult to pry away from the general military without anyone noticing, but shared the advantage of the ship crew—they could be reliably mind‐read.

The operative, already kitted out in stealth combat armor, nodded back, then surprised her by transmitting:

"Always hard, leaving the network, but you get used to it. You'll forget all about it once we land."

Yuma made an expression of surprise at being so easily read.

"Look, we can be just as wired up as you guys at the very top," the operative said, "though we're designed for much more independent operation. Still, I know that look. I've been around the block a few times. Not as many as you of course, but still."

The woman wasn't joking about having been around. Yuma had reviewed her files, after they had had lunch together in the ship's rec room. Vlasta had service dating back to the late Unification Wars, and had bounced around the professional military's evolving duties for what was nearing three centuries. Yuma had even personally approved some of her first assignments—some things never changed.

"You calling me old?" she chose to retort, mainly by way of joke, since it wasn't something she could really deny.

"I'm calling you experienced. I'm sort of glad to finally meet you. Though, as usual with MSY types, not what we expected you to look like."

At that point they had been staring at each other in the front of the ship for the better part of a minute. Vlasta reached up and pulled the helmet off of her suit, the interlocks at the neck releasing a second beforehand.

"A lot lighter than the usual infantry suit, despite the stealth generators. Not that we're carrying the weight, of course. But I prefer being smaller and faster on the whole."

Yuma blinked, squinting up at the commando's face. This woman was tall.

"It definitely has its advantages," Yuma said, nodding after missing a beat. "That's one of the reasons we try not to go into serious combat in adult form."

Yuma waited a moment, watching the woman cradle the helmet in one arm. She found herself at a surprising loss at how to proceed.

Finally, the woman took in a short breath, and Yuma tilted her head, putting her previous thoughts out of her head. She was about to say something important, by the looks of it.

"It is troubling to see one of you prepping for combat in a situation like this," the woman said. "Or, more accurately, the more troubling thing is that you're here at all. We're professionals, so we don't ask questions about what isn't for us to know, but we also don't pretend not to see the obvious. Whatever is here is big, big enough that you'd trust me more than some of your own, just because you can read my mind."

Yuma listened to the remarks without interruption, even as the other personnel in the room made no attempt to hide that they were listening in.

"I thought you said you wouldn't ask questions," Yuma said finally. "That sounds like you want me to tell more about what's going on."

"It's not a question, just a statement," the woman said. "For something like this, you're right not to tell us everything. But don't forget that if something happens, we're still right here, and we're not as out of the loop as we might look."

"I'll keep that in mind," Yuma said. "And for the record, I have no good idea what's in this base, just that it may not be very friendly. I couldn't tell you much more about that even if I wanted to."

Precisely worded, to the limits of Standard, and Yuma could tell the woman had caught that nuance.

Another woman appeared at Vlasta's side, dressed in nearly identical attire—quite literally appeared, materializing out of thin air with the barest of shimmers. It was the ship AI, Raven.

"I thought you'd want to know, the anti‐IIC device has been triggered, and the cordon has been set up," Raven said. "Thus far, there has been no visible activity or attempt to escape. We have eyes over the existing docking site, survey drones at the main entrances, and tunneling drones seeking alternate routes. Nothing unusual so far. Other than the site itself."

Yuma nodded, closing her eyes to tune in to Raven's internal network, which was receiving updates passively from the other ships. There still wasn't anything to do but wait, but at least now there was something to watch.

Jovan Pritchard had been a cruiser captain for three years now.

As he understood it, his life story was typical for someone in his position. The last of three sons, he had scraped out a living as a private transport shuttle operator on the colony of Kaupang. It had been evacuated early in the war, when Governance had decided it was too close to the front and wasn't worth defending.

That hadn't really come as a surprise, since it had been little more than a pit stop for civilian transports, a place where could you grab some supplies, maybe step outside and breathe a little oxygen from the primitive microbial ecosystem. But it had been home.

He had signed up immediately for the militia on his new colony world, an easy‐to‐get job on a planet he didn't care to live on, figuring that if there was an attack he could maybe get something done, and feel like his life had some purpose beyond just being yet another immortal cog.

He hadn't imagined then how things would transpire. Assigned as a human technician to one of the planet's shipyard defense cruisers, he had worried that he would be little more than a wrench monkey, a glorified repair bot with a 1H intelligence rating, passing the time with recreational VR. Somehow he had gotten promoted, though, and when the aliens had surprised everyone by deigning to raid the shipyard in force, he had led a team of technicians in exosuits for an unfathomable half‐hour, racing to hold the ship together against the assault.

When the ship's bridge had been blown open, gutting its AI, he had managed to stitch its remaining personality fragments back together into a barely‐functioning semi‐sentient, then listened carefully to its instructions as his team worked to manually aim and fire the ship's point defense pods, routing commands through their own implants into the disconnected systems.

He had sent the medal he had received to HSS Xiao He, who he felt deserved most of the credit, but for that he had received another promotion. Half a decade of proudly efficient service later, he had been invited to join the Navy proper, under the special dispensation program that waived age requirements for auxiliary forces of exceptional merit.

And now he was here, gathered with Task Force Gunnerside, slated to lead his ship and soldiers into a wormhole. There were no battlecruisers here, so the only more prestigious role was that of task force commander, though there were a number of cruiser captains with more seniority than him.

Seated in the bridge's Maximal Command interface, but as of yet only minimally connected, he tried to convey the aura of professional calm he felt his role required.

"We are in position," he said to his third‐in‐command. "The only thing left is to wait, so get to your stations."

The officer nodded, then turned on his heel, heading for his station on the other side of the ship. On a non‐battlecruiser, there was a delicate tradeoff between efficiency and robustness, between placing senior officers on the bridge—with minimal latency to the AI's most valuable processing nodes—and the risk that one really good attack would cripple command. On a Magi Cæli cruiser like his, the chosen balance was to place the captain and second‐in‐command on the bridge and scatter the other officers throughout the ship, most assigned responsibility for specific sectors or subsystems.

Closing his eyes, he immersed himself in the operations of the task force, slowly blending into the Command Gestalt.

By the standards of a Fleet Admiral or a Field Marshal, what a cruiser captain experienced was rather small scale, focused on only a few hundred ships and support units, with a much leaner ship AI to support it. In this case, however, that viewpoint was enough to encompass the entire task force, meaning that in a way, he was no less well‐informed than Admiral Gul, the overall commander.

Such a unity of purpose and perspective would be critical in this engagement, whose scale belied its import.

He took a moment to review the layout of the fleet, which had formed itself into thin concentric shells around the projected opening of the wormhole. Each shell represented one wave, flying into the spherical opening on brazenly‐close convergent trajectories, only to separate again once they passed through, almost like light waves passing through a divergent lens.

This was necessary to get ships through as fast as possible while still allowing breathing room to re‐calibrate their approach, either to counteract unexpected events, or even to abort mission. The first wave, the pioneer wave, would have the roughest go of it, since it would be their job to immediately scope out any minefields or traps, and only then be followed by the rest of the fleet.

That would not be his role. The pioneer wave was composed of a bevy of stealth ships and sensor frigates, alongside point defense frigates and cruisers—a maximally survivable shell to hopefully shield the arrival of the rest of the fleet. He would be in the second wave, a combination of interceptor‐focused escort carriers and cruisers like his own, the HSS Shelton Mayson, specialized in deploying and supporting MC teams. This also meant hauling in the vast loads of barrage drones that would be necessary to mitigate any slower‐arriving alien countermeasures, such as blink cannon projectiles. Two more waves would follow, and then the wormhole would be closed, mere minutes after it had been opened.

But the true thrust of their attack would come only after they had reduced the alien defensive infrastructure around the pulsar. When the time came, the wormhole would be reopened, and one last set of ships would be ready, in the form of a few constructs whose purpose would have been clear even in the Ancient era: automated cruisers loaded with as much exotic matter as they could safely contain, too dangerous to send into combat any earlier.

Once through, their objective would be simple—ram the pulsar.

The impact itself would hardly matter, gigaton blips easily shrugged off by neutronium, stretched out over a second or so by tidal shear tearing the ships apart.

But the exotic matter payload would briefly wreak havoc with the gravitational structure of the pulsar, temporarily freeing neutronium from confinement. That would release latent stresses of a cataclysmic scale, no longer safely managed by the alien gravity modulators. Then, according to the simulations, the pulsar would glitch—and, if all had gone well, the fleet would already be home.

If all did not go well, there was of course a high chance a lot of them would still be there, and would die in a storm of unthinkable amounts of hard radiation. Given the stakes involved, it was understood that they would stay if they had to, all but the most valuable.

"Alright sailors," he said over the ship intercom. "Are you all ready for the show?"

He knew damn well they were, standing at their stations throughout the ship, but it was still good for morale to ask, and to hear the affirmative reply. Good for his morale, even.

The Command Gestalt watched final preparations go underway.

When the time came to activate it, Project Armstrong's gate assembly was nearly twenty times the original size of Adept Blue, which was itself now attached to one of the six main gravity generators, like a larva budding off of its parent.

The six parts of the assembly anchored the orthogonal axes of an imaginary sphere, about twenty kilometers in diameter, a distance a good deal longer than any battlecruiser. As such, it was about the size of a second‐tier shipyard, of the sort one might find orbiting a mature Second Wave colony world.

In complexity, novelty, and sophistication, however, it far outstripped any of those comparisons, especially the battlecruisers, which lugged around tremendous amounts of ablative composites.

Despite the much larger cavity that yawned between the generators, the wormhole itself was projected to be no bigger than five kilometers—large enough to fit a few cruisers with decent clearance, but not much more than that. Compared to the two hundred kilometer width of the Orpheus wormhole, it was nothing, but they weren't connecting companion stabilizers like the aliens were.

Five kilometers was only an estimate, if a very well‐founded one—they dared not conduct serious test runs, in fear of tipping the aliens off to what they were doing. They could, at best, only open a few wormholes a hundred meters in size to calibrate the equipment, pointing into safe sectors of human space. Gas giants were a favored target; anything more would require tunneling into the gravitational field of a star, and might be extremely visible.

But for all the exotic matter containment units and IIC optimization interlinks and exclusion‐locking forcefields and Field Manipulation Drives that dotted the structure, there was still only one place Ryouko, Simona, and Asami could be when it was time to open the wormhole, and that was at the very center.

To Ryouko, for whom access to space had once been a dream, it felt oddly poignant that traveling to that center had become a bit routine. The airlock, the spacesuits—they had practiced it all a half‐dozen times.

This time, though, the sense of anticipation, of foreboding, made things very different.

"The task force is nearly in place," the newly‐built base AI, Maria Cáceres, said over the intercom, a brief human note in the symphony of machines playing out around them. "It is time to head out."

Ryouko looked at Asami and Simona, who both nodded back at her. They had gathered by the airlock, helmets in hand, reluctant to suit up until the last moment, staring silently at one of the viewing panes.

Most of their friends were already gone, assigned to this piece or that of the task force. They had already said their goodbyes, at a last gathering where they had shared tea and cakes. Almost everyone with combat experience was going—even Patricia, who would be responsible for some kind of nebulous electronic security. Some old faces Ryouko hadn't seen for a while—Ying‐zhi, Mina, and Annabelle, for instance—had shown up in recent weeks, requisitioned based on magic class and experience.

"Good luck," Elanis said, holding up her hands, and next to her Eri nodded in concurrence. They weren't going, because they were simply too inexperienced, but they had still shown up to watch Ryouko, Asami, and Simona head into the breach.

"Watch yourselves," Clarisse van Rossum said, expression solemn. She had surprised them all, except Ryouko, by not signing on to a ship despite already being there. Ryouko had explained that although Clarisse's role as a historian often kept her near the front, from Asunción to Zenobia, she almost never fought, acting instead as a medic to the wounded or a witness to the dead. And this mission, like Orpheus, afforded no observers.

"We'll be careful," Asami said, and turning away, she placed her helmet on her head, its interlocks sealing shut with a slight hiss.

"As much as possible," Simona agreed, imitating Asami's gesture.

Ryouko waited a moment, looking at the helmet in her hand, glossy and pitch‐black on the inside, inactive without its suit connection. It was difficult to shake a sense of… not just foreboding, nor even that something big was about to happen—that was obvious to everyone. No, ever since she had first arrived, she had felt a growing sense that events were gathering around her, controlled in a way she could not perceive, for ends she did not know.

It should have been possible to find comfort in that, to give oneself over to the idea that there was a guardian watching over her, but somehow it didn't feel reassuring.

It was the Clarisse on her spine that had first untangled her subconscious, and explained to her why she felt that way. The Goddess she had met was not the sort to valorize herself, to elevate prophets and visibly protect her favorites. She preferred to be invisible. Given that, the Goddess's intervention in matters of more than mere triviality was not comforting but worrying, because it implied that something was so terribly wrong it would yield to nothing but divine will.

These were thoughts Ryouko could not help but be reminded of, with Simona and Van Rossum seeming to symbolize the machinations swirling around her.

There was something else, too. A strange kind of apathy, as if she were just waiting now for something to happen, for destiny to arrive. She didn't exactly derive happiness from what she was doing here—was she supposed to? Did anyone who was drafted into this terrible war? She should have been satisfied knowing that, unlike everyone else, the universe seemed to care about her.

"I will try," she said finally, when she realized she had been standing there silent too long.

She placed the helmet over her head, her vision shrouded for only the briefest of moments by profound blackness, dark even in the radiation bands humans could not normally see. Then it returned to normal, the helmet's inner surface transmitting a clear view of the world around her. A moment later, the helmet connected itself around her neck, electronics moving into place, settling into the back of her mind like a brand‐new, minor limb.

Displays appeared in her vision, a mind's eye view of her suit's enhanced sensor suite. Of her enhanced sensor suite, it was probably better to say.

At the moment, though, there was nothing really to see, so she took a breath and transformed, the familiar warmth spreading over her body once again. There was no need to be embarrassed here, not in this company.

When she was done, she saw that the others had followed her lead, Simona now an angular orange and Asami a bulky purple. Her vision showed them with a notable magical glow, accompanied by colored curlicues that were entirely stylistic, an unavoidable side‐effect of the magic imbuing the suit. To Ryouko's eye, her own suit was even worse than it had been at Orpheus. Here, their armor was bulkier and much more technological, so her magic had apparently decided to balance that out by having it sprout as many ridiculous frills as could possibly fit.

Simona gestured towards the airlock's entrance with one hand, waiting for Ryouko to go first. Ryouko stepped inside, followed by the others, and the door behind them slid shut immediately.

There was a gentle lurch, as their transport ship detached from the main facility, airlock and all. They would not board the ship—the journey was so short that there was no point—and the airlock would not evacuate. Not yet.

Ryouko asked the ship to show the world around them, and a moment later a seamless recreation of the scenery of deep space inscribed itself onto the walls, flawless as long as she confined herself to the visual spectrum, and as long as she ignored the floor, which she had asked to stay normal—unlike Asami, she didn't like seeing the ground vanish from underneath her.

There was, for once, plenty new to see. The six gravity generators were by now familiar parts of the scenery, something whose gradual assembly Ryouko had tracked carefully, waking up from her daily nap to peer at a viewing panel. But now the generators showed clear signs of great activity, projection filaments reaching outward to a length she had never seen before, gossamer‐looking at her distance.

A quick check of the ship's gravimetric overlay showed the obvious, that the generators and their filaments were incandescent with activity.

Beyond that there was a whole fleet of ships to see, countless dark outlines blocking out the stars, far more numerous, and larger, than the service vessels that usually darted around the station, brightly lit for safety.

And finally, perhaps most visibly, the stars were spinning around her, about twice a second. That had never been done, not in any of the previous experiments, because there was no reason to. Not until the final show.

It was a short ride until they reached their destination, a fact she anticipated by a number of channels—the accelerometers in her suit, the suit's parallax estimates of the objects around her, and, of course, her own magically‐enhanced senses.

The air finally began to evacuate from their airlock, and the transport's own gravity generator turned off, releasing them into weightlessness.

With slight nudges, they kicked off from the ground, floating upward slightly before using their suits to decelerate until stationary—more precisely, stationary relative to the ship, and thus to the gravity generator assembly. Proper understanding of reference frames was going to become very important, very soon.

The walls of the airlock turned solid gray. Then the doors slid open, exposing their compartment to the vacuum of space, and the ship began to move away, maneuvering precisely enough that the three of them saw the opening of the airlock fly towards them, before the breathtaking moment where it left them behind, alone now in the void of space.

There was a brief moment while lingering exhaust from the ship thrusters buffeted them, easily corrected by suit thrusters.

Like the entire base around them, they were now flying past the local stars at roughly 4.5% of the speed of light, and rotating in place. That was to say, they had the exact characteristics of a tidally locked satellite in orbit around a certain pulsar many light‐years away, lacking only a central force to pull them into an orbit.

"VLR frame synchronization achieved," Maria thought. "Synchronizing generators."

Ryouko glanced around at the stars with vision augmented by yet another layer of processing, from both her suit and Clarisse's new upgrades. This time, she could more clearly see the slight blue and red shifts of the stars as they spun, and knew instinctively what her velocity and spin must be.

"We are deployed," Asami thought at length, once their transport had become a speck in the distance.

She raised her arms, suit mass‐balance mechanisms automatically adjusting to prevent the motion tilting her posture—something that could have been handled by magic.

Asami was taller than Ryouko was used to, an effect that wasn't entirely due to the suit. They had needed to grow auxiliary computing modules for their TacComps, and the easiest way to gain the space for that was to just grow about three years older, a process Clarisse van Rossum had walked them through.

And then, of course, there was the computing embedded into the suit itself, connected to their implants by the usual ports at L4, C5, and both wrists.

The next step was familiar to Ryouko: the appearance of a singularity in front of Asami's hands, the distant generators beginning to glow in the lower frequency bands, the glow beginning to form in her own soul gem. This much testing they had done outside simulation.

But all of the previous wormholes had been smaller, and there had been allowance for a bit of tweaking, or even a bit of hesitation.

There would be no such allowance here, and once formed it was imperative the wormhole reach its maximum size almost immediately, before the Cephalopods would have time to respond.

Outside the generator radius, she could feel the Human fleet bearing down on them from all sides, performing the final velocity adjustments necessary to enter the gate right as it opened. Everything had to be done precisely.

Simona's magic appeared then, a shimmering orange glow that was almost entirely swallowed by the darkness around them, but served at least to highlight Asami's otherwise barely visible singularity. With a gesture, Asami forced it to balloon in size, swallowing her arms, her body, and then the two of them, Ryouko suppressing the instinctive urge to recoil.

It wasn't an event horizon anymore, not with Asami in control, but for it to achieve its purpose it needed to grow kilometers in size, and while it did, they would be suspended there, in newly‐formed void, illuminated only by orange, purple, and green.

She had asked Asami once what happened to the light that fell into this void. It was pitch‐black from the outside, and pitch‐black from the inside, but it had to go somewhere.

"That's the point," Asami had said. "It goes somewhere."

It's your turn now, Simona thought, bypassing the comparatively clunky suit radios.

As reply, Ryouko raised her arms, allowing Clarisse to relay the intention to her suit so it would counteract her change in posture. It was as easy as raising her arms on Earth, even if Asami said it felt unnatural.

She closed her eyes, and could just barely hear the void screaming around her. Somewhere, indeed. Clarisse had explained how it actually worked: the bubble around them was already larger on the inside than the outside. Under immense gravitational strain—strain Asami had protected them from—the bubble had distorted into an extradimensional configuration. The light from outside was simply getting lost in all that new space.

Ryouko felt a small, almost electric jolt, and then she felt the warmth of Simona's power enhancement flowing through her, and it carried with it the girl's emotions—determination, trepidation, and… affection, awkwardly, for the target of her magic.

Ryouko shook it off, focusing instead on what it gave her: a sense, deep inside her, that here was possibility, here her power was great, and here she could go somewhere far, far away.

And when she opened her eyes again, mere seconds later, it was not to a void, but to a field of stars that seemed to move constantly, except for one bright speck in the middle that never moved. She knew the proper analogy: she was looking into a window centered on the small speck of a pulsar, circling the pulsar endlessly, so that the stars within appeared to spin.

She relaxed, just a little. It was done, and she didn't need to look behind her to know that a wave of ships would be flying in. Instead, she grabbed the other two by the shoulders, preparing to teleport them into their chosen insertion ship—they would still be needed to close the wormhole from the other side soon enough.

She allowed herself a more detailed look at the pulsar, taking in the massive radiation jets at the poles, and the lighter radiation background that saturated the area, in front of which the many alien facilities were visible in silhouette.

Then she made the jump.

The reports from the asteroid installation were worrying, but fortunately, not actively dangerous.

"This place is abandoned. Like, completely abandoned," one of the soldiers said, looking at the telemetry. "If this were on Earth, there'd be cobwebs."

A long pause.

"There's signs of a struggle everywhere, though. Chairs turned over, damaged equipment—the readings say it's been a long time since that happened, but the error bars are huge."

"Careful," someone else said. "This isn't your typical station. Place like this, in the middle of space, it's hard to really know."

Yuma nodded in invisible agreement. Depending on exactly how it was abandoned, a station inside an asteroid in the middle of deep space would stay shockingly well‐preserved for years, decades, centuries. With no life support, most remaining organisms would die off quickly, remaining dust from the previous occupants would settle into place, and there things would stay. With no gravity to add strain, no atmosphere to corrode, and no organisms to digest, a frozen tableau might stay in place effectively forever.

There were a few remaining mechanisms of change that might be measured: mildly radioactive isotopes in the dust would gradually decay away, certain forms of data storage would lose coherence, and magnetic fields of all types would slowly weaken. None of these provided reliable estimates, though, especially not with field equipment. If they had been lucky, an intact long‐term power source could have been used for a precise reading, but it seemed none had been left behind.

Still, it wasn't the exact age that mattered, so much as whether anyone had been there since the meeting that had turned up in MG's lost memories, nearly two decades ago. If someone had shown up but made no effort to cover their tracks, that'd be easy to detect. Otherwise…

"Most of the equipment is still in place?" Yuma asked, even though she could follow the telemetry quite well. "Even if damaged."

"Yes," Raven replied. "Depends where you look, though, and there are still no real power sources. Some of it is weapons fire, but a lot of it was clearly deliberate. Hard to avoid the conclusion someone cleaned this place out."

"Not very well," Yuma said. "Not if all this is left behind. Whoever it was was in a hurry. Hell, if I were trying to hide evidence, I would have just flung this whole place into a gas giant and been done with it."

They would see soon enough, she thought. The installation had an unusually large concealed landing platform, sufficient for frigates, and the drones hadn't found any hidden threats.

It was time to land the human personnel. They had collected everyone into two ships, for landing efficiency. Raven would go second.

"Not everyone has your talent for hiding evidence," Arisu said, almost dryly. "Personally, though, I'm more confused that no one has ever come back to clean things up. There's been plenty of time to do so."

"Limited resources, perhaps," Rin said. "You saw how difficult it was to get us out here. Their ability to manipulate Governance is obviously fairly constrained, and it may simply have not been worth the effort or risk to come back out here."

"They built this base, dragged Governance AIs out here, made them fight, and then deleted the memory of it all," Jeannette replied.

"Doesn't mean they can do it all the time, or even more than once," Rin said. "I'm willing to bet whatever happened here was very important to whoever arranged it."

"Governance AIs aren't exactly known for gunfire," Rose commented. "Yet that seems to be something there was a lot of."

"They could have brought autonomous drones," Yuma said. "As for why there was gunfire, the most likely possibility to me is this: Two different secret groups arranged a meeting, and one betrayed the other. And I would guess the faction with the AIs was doing the betraying, since it doesn't really make sense to shoot an AI, even one being run locally, because of backups."

"Conspiracies and betrayals," Rose said. "Sounds like the old days. I had hoped we were past that."

"Look, it's a total guess," Yuma said. "There's not really enough information to go on."

They idled nervously as the first ship separated from the dock, giving Raven space to land in turn. Then they donned spacesuits and stepped into the ship's airlock, white and tiny and brightly lit, which reminded Yuma a bit too much of the kind of interrogation room the MSY had used for a while.

She felt some trepidation as she stood there, waiting for her suit to seal itself. Even an Ancient had little reason to be too comfortable in space without previous experience, and a few training simulations wasn't quite enough to remove the psychological edge.

These suits weren't even enchanted, which would have been extremely difficult to requisition without anyone noticing. That meant that if she transformed, it was doubtful she would keep anything but the basic life support. She couldn't get too used to the functions the suit provided.

At least the installation's life support was nearly back online, and with it, its gravity generators. It wouldn't be much longer now.

As if on cue, a new message arrived for her.

Well, that's… unusual, she thought, knowing that the others had gotten the same notification.

While modern implanted humans could tolerate an enormous range of environmental conditions, maximum comfort still dictated temperature, humidity, and oxygen settings that would have been familiar to humans of any era. On a station like this, where it was useful to save power, an effort could be made to bias the settings towards something cheaper—colder, drier, less oxygenated.

Which made it extremely unusual that this installation's life support, now reactivated, had at first started working towards a very hot environment, with 24% oxygen and 100% humidity.

I would speculate genetic engineering, but for these conditions? Out here? It doesn't make sense, Rose thought. And if you were growing bacteria or plants you could use an incubator. What might need conditions like this?

It's similar to what's been seen in some Ceph bases, Kana thought. During the Saharan Raid, for instance.

Well, that's not encouraging, Yuma thought. We scanned this base for traps, right? Cloaked or otherwise?

Did it myself, Kana thought. Had Charlotte doublecheck, and Arisu triplecheck. The base is clean.

Yuma shook her head in dismay.

The conversation paused as the light above the airlock door turned green, signaling they could exit into vacuum when desired. A bit of an old‐fashioned touch, but it was good to have some redundant systems on a starship, for emergencies where the high technology might not all be functional.

The door swung open a second later, the Spec Ops soldiers near them piling out with efficient haste. In principle the dock had already been cleared three times: once by the drones, once by the personnel of the previous ship, and once by their own clairvoyance—but in this case paranoia was the better part of valor. Probably.

The soldiers took their positions, agile and aggressive in the microgravity in a way that was feasible only with suit propulsion to prevent flying off into the void. Some swept in front of them, while others took up positions around the dock, shimmering to optical invisibility.

The landscape before them was barren and gray, visible only by the dim ambient lighting being provided by the ship. It was oddly smooth, dotted with small bits of regolith but otherwise lacking the kind of pitting and cratering that might have been expected from a star‐orbiting rock. Finally, it was cold, almost impossibly so, not that she could feel it—but it was pitch‐black on her infrared channel, except for the footsteps of the troopers that had passed before them.

They did not move out yet, waiting for the soldiers to give them an all‐clear. Still, even the eerie depths of space was a step up from the claustrophobia of the airlock.

Either there were aliens here, Yuma thought, finally addressing the previous observations about the base environment. Or someone wants us to think there were. Either way, what does that mean?

It would neatly explain some of the unusual alien behavior and phenomena we have seen up until now, Rin thought. The unlikely attacks and the stealth device on X‐25, for example. The apparent conclusion is elementary.

But shocking, Jeannette answered. I hate to think anyone would consort with aliens like that.

And there were magical girls involved! Kana thought, letting a deep anger filter into her telepathy. If those insensate brats think they've known despair—

Except, as far as we can tell, whatever meeting happened here ended in gunfire, Charlotte thought. Which doesn't seem to jive with anyone working with the aliens, even if it would explain a lot.

Rin nodded at Charlotte's comment, smiling slightly.

They were cleared to proceed then, and stepped forward. Most of them paused just after the threshold, pondering the utterly alien experience of standing—almost floating—beneath the depths of space. Within, more accurately.

Yuma couldn't help but scan the area for traces of magic one last time, despite what Kana had said. She could only sense her team, all doing much the same.

An ordinary station would have never demanded they traipse across the void, of course. Even Adept Blue accepted standard airlock‐to‐airlock docking procedures. But a station like this was trying to hide, and needed to be able to pass off its landing area as just a flat section of rock, with guidance relays cunningly concealed.

They kicked off the ground, drifting forward in the microgravity with more care than the soldiers, reliant on either their magical girl instincts or implant‐mediated experience—it was hard to tell which. None of them mentioned it, but it took a bit of bravery to jump forward into the darkness, even with suit lamps.

Yuma landed first, relying on her suit's thrusters to stop her momentum, which blew away bits of regolith from the surface. The asteroid caved inward in what looked like a natural formation, before giving way to a rock‐wall causeway, hewn directly out of the guts of the asteroid.

Here the walls were solid iron, cut with hardened metallic bits meters wide. In the absence of oxygen to dull their shine, they gleamed with surfaces smooth enough that Yuma could see a warped version of herself in reflection. Whoever had established this base had understandably chosen the most solid part of the asteroid.

Then they reached the inner airlock, which moved aside in eerie silence to let them pass. Then it was a minute or so of waiting patiently while air filled the room, which was no larger than the one on the HSS Raven.

"This smells terrible," Charlotte said as she took off her helmet, and Yuma nodded in agreement. They all had military‐grade olfactory augments, and for whatever reason that just didn't agree with the smell of… nanofilters and air recirculators that hadn't been used in what might have been nearly two decades.

There was nothing particularly dangerous in the air though, and no traces of magic, so there was nothing to it but to proceed. The narrow passages near the airlock were sheathed with cheap space station composite, glowing dull white to light the way. As before, Yuma found it more unsettling than she cared to admit—it reminded her of black sites from the Unification Wars, the kind of places she preferred to forget.

It was made worse by the fact that they were obliged to wait, standing in place time and time again as the human squad they were with cleared hallways and rooms, a process made slower by strict instructions from Rin to touch as little as possible, lest they disturb evidence.

If all else fails I could attempt some postcognition, Kana thought, commenting on the investigation they were here to perform. You all know how unreliable that is, but it's probably worth a shot.

Better to give me a look first, Rin thought. We need to do this methodically, if we're going to do this at all. It's all about the details.

They weren't just a random group of Ancients, after all. They all had skills useful in precisely this kind of investigation, coupled with an Ancient's finesse and breadth of perspective. Yuma could repair broken machinery, Kana could attempt recall of the past, Rose could literally interrogate objects, and Rin excelled at reconstructing events from the smallest of clues, in a way that often put Kana's more oracular powers to shame, provided she could get her hands on a physical scene.

Unfortunately they were still bound by the universal magical girl constraint: fundamental, frustrating limitations on their abilities. Kana could not directly control the scope of her visions, Rose often could not command her animated creations, Rin could not infer what was beyond the scope of computable logic, and Yuma could not fix what was not actually broken—she could fix data storage that had been physically destroyed, but not recover files that had been deleted, since that was simply part of the device's function. The edge cases could get infuriatingly arcane, especially for girls like them, who had spent centuries wedging their powers into every crack they could open.

They stepped into one of the abandoned rooms, an unpromising box, covered floor to ceiling with the same material as the hallways. Other than that, nothing: no equipment, no furniture, no fixtures.

"If only every crime scene could have deep space to keep it pristine. It's not often I get to look at one nearly untouched like this," Rin said, leaning over to peer at a particularly uneven pile of dust.

Next to her, Jeannette hid a smile behind one hand.

"The drones and troopers touched a bit more than I would wish," Rin continued. "But they know better than to stomp all over everything. Which is a welcome change from the usual Soul Guard squad."

Yuma spotted Kana rolling her eyes.

Nothing much here, Rin thought, standing back up and clapping her hands. Looks like it was used primarily for storage, until everything was rushed out. Standard model S‐12 transport crates, and deep space logistics drones from the 2440 generation, judging by the tracks, which gives us at least a lower bound on the date.

Nothing much, Yuma agreed cheekily, allowing Rin to fluff herself up with the understatement.

Rose tapped her foot impatiently against the ground.

They moved on, pausing only briefly to allow Rin to glance over this or that feature of the hallway or an empty room, keeping her thoughts to herself in a way that suggested she had little useful to say. She was a lot more efficient than the classic detective archetype her magic was based on, from a combination of centuries of experience, enhanced senses, and the knowledge that there were more critical things to see—there would be time to come back and dig through the small details, if necessary.

Finally, they arrived at the precipice of one of the more interesting spaces, an unusually long room with a table in the middle, some overturned chairs, and clear damage to the walls, which were made of the kind of higher quality display‐capable material ubiquitous on Earth. The ceilings were also higher, so that Yuma didn't have to feel like she was constantly about to run her head into something.

"I'm looking forward to this," Rose said, rubbing her gloved hands together, with the kind of visible excitement some Ancients would kill to feel again.

If there were Ceph here, Rin thought, without preamble, and also Governance Representatives—even if there was a fight, it implies a lot of strange things. For instance, whatever aliens were here, and whatever aliens might be consorting with conspiracies, would clearly be communicating with humans. But there is no other evidence the Cephs have ever tried to communicate with us, or even that they can read our languages, even for military advantage. We had thought that they might be deliberately avoiding cultural contamination by refusing to even do the analysis, but this means there's at least some aliens who have.

It could just be the High Command, Kana thought, as Rin stepped forward to inspect the area. They certainly wouldn't be the first to keep things away from the rank‐and‐file. They might just deny combat troops the ability, for political or ideological reasons.

Certainly the combat troops don't show much evidence of cognitive independence, Rose thought.

You haven't seen all the files, Arisu thought, almost chidingly. You can't really think we've never tried studying their thoughts? We mind‐control them all the time.

"Damage primarily from human‐style kinetic weaponry," Rin said, standing up abruptly. "Very unusual indications on the floor and table, nothing I recognize, which is odd in and of itself. Signs of a struggle are obvious. It doesn't look like whatever fight this was started here—this chair was knocked over by someone falling over while running in from the next room."

She walked slowly as she talked, until she stood next to the chair in question. Now she pointed down at the floor dramatically.

"This floor has been cleaned. The dust lays on this area a lot thinner, which likely resulted from a greater density of cleaning nanites than elsewhere in the room. But the dust is thicker in the middle, where a lot of them were used up cleaning whatever was here. I could drag this on, but there's no need to make this more convoluted. Perform a fine‐resolution surface elevation scan with your ocular implants."

They did so as directed, walking over and standing still for the slightly uncomfortable process of losing direct control of their vision as their eyes traversed the surface, flashing rapidly through a number of wavelengths.

What they saw, of course, was the shape of a body, superimposed on a shallower shape that was, perhaps, a pool of liquid.

"A bit oddly shaped for a human," Kana said. "Though obviously, this is a rather inexact method. I don't suppose you can do anything with the cleaning nanites here?"

"Ah, no, this is not something I can manipulate," Yuma said. "Old, broken‐down cleaning nanites are way too small for my magic. If it's outside a body at least."

Jeannette reached out, a bright white spark of magic pulsing between her finger and the ground.

"I thought so. They're too broken," Jeannette said, with a trace of unsurprised disappointment.

"Well, let's see what the furniture has to say," Rose said, reaching for the chair.

A flash of magic pulsed over the chair and table, which shone white three times, reshaping themselves from a bland utilitarian style—one of those minimum‐resource designs that even Governance thought was boring—into antique, dark wood creations from the Spanish colonial period, unless Yuma missed her guess.

Unlike what one might expect, these enchanted objects did not immediately begin moving or talking or raising serious ethical questions about how to treat semi‐sentient furniture. Rose was simply communing, and they knew better than to ask or probe into what it was she was seeing—she had always been oddly hostile to the question, and those telepaths that had tried generally refused comment.

Well! Rose thought. Chairs are excitable creatures, not super reliable, but this one saw plenty useful. This is exactly what it looks like. A group of aliens were here on relatively peaceful terms, before a fight broke out somewhere and spilled into this room. One of them died here after being shot numerous times.

"Well," Yuma said, turning the word into an epithet.

Given how early in the war this was, it's possible this was a clandestine diplomatic effort, especially given the involvement of Governances AIs, Charlotte thought. One can only imagine what the aliens thought of us after this. Perhaps the conspiracy's involvement here was intended to make diplomacy impossible.

Again, Yuma saw Rin smile slightly, studying the chair with a thoughtful expression.

What kind of species conducts diplomacy by side‐channel, while refusing to perform any form of communication by any obvious channel? Rin asked. As I said, they don't show evidence of understanding us anywhere else.

To Yuma's ears the question sounded rhetorical. For someone like Rin, whose wish had been… Holmesian, it implied that she had already followed the chain of reasoning and was leaving a question for the reader, so to speak. Except Yuma couldn't shake the feeling that there was more than that, that Rin knew more than she was letting on.

Yuma felt ice grip her heart, but grabbed hold of herself quickly. She had to stay objective; even if a paranoid train of thought like that were correct, it did her no good to show it on her face. She would have to study the issue under better circumstances.

Who can say? Rose thought, answering Rin's question. These are aliens. We should not apply our cultural preconceptions to them. Let's not spend too long standing here. I want to hear what the next room has to say.

Let's follow this trail of evidence directly, Rin thought. I can try to track this event back to a source. There will be time later to check every room exhaustively.

There was no objection, so they followed Rin as she stepped gingerly around the area of the chair, towards the threshold at the end of the room where it led back into one of the facility's connecting hallways.

At the end of the hallway was an even larger room, large enough to serve as a communal dining area. Here, the walls were faux‐wood paneling, and with some decoration and the right furniture it might even have been described as cozy, if it weren't for the fact that the wall was riddled with weapons damage, this time in enough density that it was clear automatic fire had been involved.

It didn't require Rin to realize that this room must have been important, and the sheer extent of wall damage suggested it had been a focal point of events. But here the clean‐up job was better done than the previous room—no furniture to interrogate, no telltale traces on the ground. Better done, that is, except for the unrepaired walls.

They didn't have time to do a thorough job, and could only settle for cleaning up the main scene, Kana thought. But if that's the case, why bother at all?

Rin bent over to look into one of the holes in the wall.

Type 7 inert antidrone rounds, but fired subsonic, she thought. Perhaps a retrofit onto a civilian drone. In any case, this wasn't much of a fight—whoever was on the receiving end doesn't seem to have fired back.

She shook her head.

It was a very messy job, and as Kana said, it makes little sense. If you wanted to conceal what you had done, you either need to destroy the evidence better, or you operate much cleaner. Automatic weapons fire is possibly the worst way to do things.

Which raises the possibility that someone was meant to see this, Yuma said. But they wanted to leave some uncertainty about that.

She didn't say "we" were meant to see this, though the thought had been in her mind for a while now. Even in the age of AIs and Ancients, no one constructed multi‐decade gambits, not for something as unpredictable as this.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Vlasta, who had sent her a mental ping to catch her attention before she reached the room.

Yuma turned around carefully, leaving the others to continue focusing on Rin's study of the damage to the room.

"The forensics team is done with their initial inspection of the main computing cluster," Vlasta said. "They've retrieved the data storage they want for further lab work, but there are a few data crystals that warrant your attention, since they appear to have been smashed without having been deleted."

Rin and the others stopped talking for a moment.

"Well, take me to it then," Yuma said. "Jeannette, you want to join me?"

Jeannette nodded, striding over after exchanging the briefest of glances with Rin.

They left the rest of the group behind, following Vlasta down a small web of corridors, before reaching a crawlspace freshly‐hewn out of the rock of the asteroid, breaching the seal on a computing cluster that was otherwise only accessible by drone tunnel.

You have got to be kidding me, Yuma lamented to herself. She was already feeling claustrophobic, and now she had to do this?

But she swallowed her disquiet and crouched down, getting on hands and knees to move forward by the light of her suit lamp, though she couldn't help but reflect that all this would have been much easier if she were just a bit smaller.

She emerged into a pitch‐black alcove just barely large enough for the people there: Vlasta, Yuma, Jeannette, and two others. It too had been hewn out of the rock by the initial drone team, and it was possible to see several other access tunnels.

The members of the forensics team nodded politely, gesturing her towards a tray of data crystals—or rather, what had been data crystals, but were now a collection of jewel‐like shards, shot through with metal latticework and iridescent in the lamp light.

"These are damaged enough that we wouldn't be able to recover everything," one of them said. "And that's with weeks of reconstruction time in the lab. Figure you might give us a bit of a shortcut. We did our best to find all the pieces we could, but we can't guarantee anything."

Yuma leaned over, letting her suit hold her upright in what would have otherwise been a difficult posture. She took her time inspecting the shards, tilting her head and even picking one up gingerly, feeling its texture through her gloves' tactile feedback sheath.

She let herself crack a smile.

"Yeah, that'll do. Give me a second."

In a way, healing was the purest of magics. Magical girls intrinsically reversed entropy, and healing wounds was almost literally just that, at least in an oddly focused, limited kind of way. Small wonder that light healing was a well‐trodden avenue in power development.

She held her hands out to the tray, allowing her magic to envelope it in a bright green glow, pieces of crystal levitating off the surface to seek their former partners.

Machines were not that much different from biology, indeed simpler, since even the most abstruse of AI‐created designs rarely equaled the messiness of a cell. At first Yuma had only been able to repair mechanical devices she understood, but as Oriko had once taught her, it only took a small change in perspective, a little bit of mental trickery, to think of machines as injured. And once she did that, her magic grew a lot more adept at filling in the gaps in her knowledge.

Faster and faster the crystals spun in the air, recalling their original configurations, fusing where they touched.

Compared to repairing a human brain, merely piecing together shards of crystal was child's play, an exercise that could have been done in a Governance lab with enough time. The real magic was in filling in the pieces that were not there, the atoms missing at the joints, the data lost to the entropy of shattering, the crystal slivers now simply gone, still containing vital data. Somehow, that would all return from the void, much as a healer might restore missing synapses, or missing neurons.

Nearly‐complete crystals now hung before her, still missing a chunk here, a few atoms there, and with one final gesture these sealed shut, gaps filling in with radiant green light.

Then the crystals floated back down, landing on the tray with soft thuds. Inside her suit, small servos moved to place fresh grief cubes near the soul gem on her neck. The process had taken a few minutes, much longer than it took her to heal a human.

"Well, let's take a look," Yuma said to the two technicians, who were still mesmerized by the show.

One of them hastened over, raising one arm over the crystals. What looked like a small spigot nozzle emerged from a compartment on the side, tilting over to scan a crystal with a small burst of light.

"Hmm, still non‐trivial," the technician said. "There is another layer of obfuscation here, distributing information across multiple crystals. Not something you see too much of nowadays—you tend to see either straight‐up quantum cryptography or just not bothering at all."

"Right, but in a situation where you can't store keys somewhere off‐site, it's not reliable enough security to encrypt static data," Jeannette said. "You still have to store the key somewhere, and quantum encryption only guarantees someone can't fiddle with it while transmitting without you noticing."

"Yes, with no off‐site storage, they probably didn't feel they could put it anywhere safe enough," the technician said. "So they had to do something a bit more traditional."

"How much of an effect will this have on reading the data?" Yuma asked.

"It will make it harder, at the very least," the technician said, diligently scanning the remaining crystals. "And even with your, er, contributions, if we don't have the pieces necessary to reconstruct some files, then they're just lost."

Yuma made an annoyed expression, but made sure not to look too unhappy. This kind of thing was no one's fault but the enemy's.

"How long will it take?" she asked.

"A couple of hours, less if I take it to a starship computing cluster for processing. However, we can stream the results as they come in."

Yuma nodded.

"Keep me posted," she said, turning to leave.

Before she had even managed to bend over to enter the crawlspace, however, she stopped, frowning at a new set of notifications from the cordon ships.

"What?" she asked, out loud, long seconds later.

Several human ships had been detected, appearing at the limit of sensor range on inbound FTL trajectories that made it clear they were heading for the asteroid.

For a moment, she had feared the worst—that they had been discovered, that they were about to come under attack, that they might be doomed.

But then, more information had arrived. These weren't state‐of‐the‐art military vessels, or unknowns. In fact, Yuma knew these designs well—they were MSY paramilitary, or more precisely, the "civilian" designs the MSY used when it wanted to conduct its own operations with teeth, updated versions of the models they had used at New Athens.

And as for what they were doing here…

"What the hell are you doing here?" Yuma shouted into the connection the instant it was established.

Kyouko couldn't help but smile a little at Yuma's consternation, projected all over an angry, teenage face she hadn't seen in centuries. It brought back warm memories.

She covered her smile with one hand, however. Mirth would have been inappropriate, both because it might make Yuma angrier and… well, the current situation wasn't one where she could afford to be careless. Especially after her small flotilla had found it so hard just to establish communications in the first place.

The standard protocol at this range was for starships to exchange a quick series of messages via IIC, establishing who would fly where and who was allowed to approach.

But, lacking a direct IIC wormhole link to each other, that would require routing through a nonlocal IIC node, probably Yenisei—which was a potential dead giveaway about strange activity going on nearby.

There was a backup protocol, usually used by ships with disabled IIC transceivers. It involved patterned FTL sensor pings, and Yuma's perimeter ships reacted first, sending a message asking who they were.

Once that was made clear, another message directed Kyouko's ships to stop a dozen light‐minutes away, except for a single ship that would fly in and exchange an IIC wormhole pair. A meaningful, but understandable level of paranoia.

Further messages informed them not to be alarmed by gravitational anomalies on‐site—the result of some unexplained site security measure—and for Kyouko to stand by for an open channel once the local IIC connection was established.

In retrospect, she should have expected that she would get an earful.

"I'm here tracking a lead," Kyouko said. "Have you checked your equipment? I have."

She had to assume Yuma would catch the meaning of that, that they needed to be sure both sides of this local communication had equipment they were sure wasn't compromised.

Yuma gave her an appraising look.

"Yes, of course. I'm surprised you checked yours. Was it with magic?"

"Yes," Kyouko said, relaxing. "Of course. Is there some other way?"

Yuma seemed to have her attention distracted for a moment, turning to address someone behind her. She appeared to be walking somewhere.

"We can talk about that later. You were following a lead?"

Kyouko took a moment to gather her thoughts.

"Yes. Nadya Antipova was following up on some of Joanne Valentin's old travels, which at one point took her to the nearby planet of Yenisei. While there, she heard about a local sighting that sounded very much like Misa Virani. We did not find her, but we did find a mysterious outpost that she had destroyed, invisible to local Governance. From data crystals at the site, we recovered a set of coordinates. And… that's pretty much it. I'm just following up. Didn't think it was safe to come out here without a few ships."

She could see a look of skepticism in Yuma's eyes—she probably thought Kyouko wasn't telling the whole truth.

"Look, I know it sounds pretty coincidental, but that's really all there is to it," Kyouko said. "I'd be happy to share the data files, what little there is, and Nadya's here with me, she'll vouch for what I say. I take it you're here for similar reasons?"

Yuma stopped walking and crossed her arms, giving Kyouko a laser‐like stare.

After all, what was Yuma doing here? There simply hadn't been time for Kyouko to give her any updates on the Cult's investigation—not with the person‐to‐person security it took to avoid potential TCF‐related breaches, not given Yuma's newfound penchant for travel, spurning her usual haunts on Earth.

Yuma might have come across the same coordinates on her own, but the coincidence involved there was… shocking, to say the least. Kyouko was here, after all, because Misa's demolition work—likely assigned by Homura—just happened to spare a couple data crystals.

Did that mean…

She dismissed the thought. Yuma being part of the TCF‐breaching conspiracy, Yuma working for Homura—whether or not these ideas made logical sense, they had been in plenty of crazier situations before, and she had never seen any reason to believe Yuma had anything but the best intentions at heart. Yuma was the one that had warned her about the TCF breach, after all.

That didn't mean she wasn't up to something, though.

Kyouko's ship had informed her that, strangely enough, Yuma's transmission was showing minor signal delay, exactly as if standard EM was being used between the asteroid and Yuma's perimeter ships. Kyouko couldn't imagine why.

Yuma finally gave up her stare.

"Pretty much," she said. "I was following a lead too. One related to whoever has been breaching Governance security. It occurs to me…"

She paused rhetorically, letting Kyouko know she wanted her to listen.

"It occurs to me that I shouldn't be so surprised to meet you here. After all, TCF corruption is something that affects us all, and Valentin seemed interested in helping us combat it, regardless of whatever else she was doing. Valentin, or frankly, should we say, Homura?"

Kyouko blinked, peering at Yuma in her mind's eye. Valentin's letter had come close to stating the truth outright, but it still felt odd to hear Yuma just say it.

She knew, though, what this was about.

"Yes, Tanaka‐san reported on the letter to me," she said. "It was about Homura, after all, and she thought I was need‐to‐know. Does that bother you?"

Yuma's gaze stayed fixed on her for a long moment, something Yuma had to know was unsettling.

"Well, yes," she said. "Tanaka‐san knew it was a sensitive matter, and there's no official 'share everything with Kyouko's Cult' rule. I don't remember agreeing that all my secrets would be shared like this. How am I ever supposed to trust working with one of you again?"

Yuma's wording was abrasive, but she was still talking, and in retrospect, Kyouko could see where she was coming from.

"I'm sorry," Kyouko said, bowing her head slightly. "I know how much your secrecy means to you. I just… well, you know, with Homura gone…"

Kyouko trailed off.

"We have processes for containing the spread of information," she eventually continued, "and the truly dangerous stuff I've kept to myself. Besides, we never got a chance to sync up. I tried, but you left Earth, and we couldn't trust the communication lines, and we'd been working on this conspiracy stuff together for months already, so…"

She knew it sounded like excuse‐making, but Yuma still needed to hear it.

"Besides," she said, capping her argument. "Do you really think we could be behind any of this weird stuff? I thought you knew me better than that."

"Not that," Yuma said, shaking her head. "But that doesn't mean you're not working with someone else. You never told me Mami was paying you visits. What exactly does that magical artifact of yours do to people?"

Kyouko blinked, then cringed, pursing her lips.

This conversation was too one‐sided. She was the one that had done all the sharing. But… Yuma wasn't big on trust. Something that Kyouko understood a bit, at least.

"I won't bullshit you," Kyouko said. "The only answer I can give to you you'll dismiss as religious. It connects us to our Goddess, lets Her speak to us, and grants visions, but nothing more, least as far as I can tell. Mami hasn't shared what she's seen with me, but she saw something. That's enough."

Nothing she hadn't said before, and she half‐expected Yuma to explode at her.

Yuma did looked displeased, but almost rather like she expected it, and surprised Kyouko by continuing the discussion.

"I've never really pressed you on this, because it's a private decision, and honestly, I thought having some meaning in your life, even fake meaning, was worthwhile," Yuma said.

She clasped her hands over her mouth, the gesture visible over their internal projections.

"But I can't let that go anymore," she said. "The stakes are too high and there's too many people wrapped up in this. How do you know these 'visions' aren't some kind of magical effect? Maybe even someone trying to manipulate you? Remember, it came from Homura. I wouldn't put it past her to be able to put together something like that. I hope you've considered the possibility."

Kyouko turned the notion over in her head, not so much the idea itself—which occurred to her even at the very beginning—but what it implied about Yuma's mindstate.

"Of course I have," she said. "But even she couldn't have put together some of the contents of these visions, and more to the point, we have never been able to find any actual magic on the Ribbon, at least not the kind we can detect. It's just… not very likely. If you want, I can send you our records on the matter."

Yuma didn't look very convinced, but there was nothing else for Kyouko to usefully say. It just wasn't that convincing, not unless you had seen a vision yourself, or were naturally inclined towards faith.

"Look, this is all kinda not the real point," Kyouko said, trying to break the conversational impasse. "This whole thing so far has just been you grilling me about why I'm here and the Church and Homura and whatever, and I don't deserve most of it. I could just as easily ask about how you got here, but I won't, because it ain't really that important if you don't want to share."

She made a show of stretching a little, clasping her arms behind her head.

"So, you want to let us take a look at what you've found? I'm sure you've already got everybody you need, but another helping hand is always nice. What kind of magic you got with you?"

She saw Yuma's eyes start to narrow, the corners twitching slightly before she got them under control.

"There's no need for anyone else on site," Yuma said, shaking her head. "We have enough security problems as it is."

She rubbed her eyes as if she had a headache, and started visibly moving again, perhaps pacing.

"I hate it, but I'm going to have to rely on your cult to keep our presence here a secret. Too much rides on it. In return, I'll tell you what I find, okay? Just you, though. Tell the rest of your ships to go back."

"No, not just like that," Kyouko said, rubbing her own forehead. "Look, I've made enough bad decisions to learn when things need a bit more thinking, and we haven't thought about this enough. At least stop and think about this a second."

Yuma closed her eyes for what Kyouko worried was an exact, literal second, but when they opened again she could tell the girl had acceded to her logic. The two of them had started interrogating each other almost the instant they came within sensor range, and that just… wasn't a good way to make decisions.

"Now that I think about it, this is really fishy," Kyouko said. "I don't know exactly how you were led here, but I'd bet you scoured some site, recovered these coordinates, and found little else. So either we both got the same tidbit from the big crapsack of secrets these guys don't want us to find… or we both got precisely what they did want us to find. I know you don't believe in coincidences on this scale."

"I don't," Yuma said, shaking her head. "But as you say, you don't know how I was led here. It wasn't in a way that's easy to rig. Someone would have had to correctly predict everything we were doing, or track us without being noticed. I don't think either is very likely."

Yuma seemed to relax bit, eyes softening.

"Look, I know it feels strange, but I just don't see it. Even if this is a set‐up, a set‐up for what, exactly?"

"I don't know," Kyouko admitted, rubbing her cheek. "An assassination attempt, maybe. Someone already tried against me, once. It's been more than once if you count other incidents. And you remember what the Far Seers said, right? Someone has more information about the future than should be possible."

Someone other than us, maybe, Kyouko thought, but did not say. The Church hoarded its grains of future‐knowledge, carefully gleaned from a too‐miserly Goddess.

"If it's an assassination attempt, that's all the more reason for you to head back immediately," Yuma said. "Best not to give a concentrated target."

Kyouko blinked once, twice. The logic didn't make sense.

"If you're trying to get rid of me, that's a pretty stupid way to do it," she said, letting real annoyance seep into her voice. "If that's really what's going on, we should all be leaving. Leave the lower‐level personnel here to investigate. Kind of a shitty move, but wouldn't be the first time we've let others take the risk for us. Not even close."

"What's going on here is too important, too sensitive to just be left behind," Yuma said. "And I brought investigation specialists. It will only take a little while longer to finish."

"Well, then I'm not leaving," Kyouko said. "We're already here, and I brought way more firepower than you did."

She made sure to look directly into Yuma's virtual eyes, a contest of wills carried out remotely.

"Suit yourself," Yuma said. "We'll meet up after I'm done."

Yuma cut the connection, leaving Kyouko to sit there, for a moment alone in an empty room with her thoughts.

"You finished in there?" Maki asked, from somewhere outside.

"Yeah," she said, leaning back in her chair.

The door slid open, and Maki stepped through, shaking her head ruefully.

"When you asked me to come with you, you said there would be some things you had to keep secret," Maki said, crossing her arms. "And I accepted that, since you said there wouldn't be that much."

"Yeah, look," Kyouko said, kneading her forehead. "Everyone already knows that Yuma is already there, and she won't budge on letting us get any closer. Yet. She promises she'll share what she finds. That's honestly the main details, but there's a lot of stuff on the side that it isn't safe to spread around. Even to you. Sorry. It's business."

"Hmm, seems like a lot of sneaking around for 'business'," Maki said, putting a hand on her shoulder. It was a gesture of familiar intimacy, of a kind that Kyouko wasn't really used to.

Kyouko gave a half‐hearted shrug with the other shoulder.

"These are strange times," she said. "You know about the people who tried to kill me. You know why the Church is here. We can't be too careful."

She paused, weighing whether to say what she was thinking.

She hadn't wanted to bring Maki, of course. The reason was the same as it always was—it wasn't safe. As an Ancient, Kyouko could handle herself. She expected the same of other Ancients, mere competency from centenarians, and much, much less of anyone younger than that. This meant that, in a risky scenario, Maki wasn't just likely to be useless, she was also likely to get herself in trouble and weigh everyone down.

That was her instinctive reaction, at least. On further consideration, the matter wasn't as simple as that. Like most of her generation, Maki had serious military training, simulation time included, something that much of Kyouko's generation had opted out of. Kyouko herself had only participated in a "skinny" version, focusing on the aspects of command she was most likely to ever be involved in.

Beyond that, if she was honest, there was a certain… reluctance she had to involving Maki in this aspect of her life. It felt like breaching the wall between two parts of her she had always kept separate, between the kooky, profligate persona that she used to destress, and the version of her that had to grudgingly admit that, yes, she was an Ancient, and old as the hills.

She didn't like what that meant.

She had to say something, though. These kinds of things had a way of being said eventually anyway, so you were better off keeping control of the matter.

"I'm not sure I should have brought you," she said, finally, sighing. "I think that's fair for me to say? You can see the danger here."

Maki nodded once, slowly.

"Yes, it's dangerous, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be here. It's not like I don't have combat experience. I have this new body to thank the labs for, remember?"

"Don't remind me," Kyouko said, nervously rubbing her human‐original hair.

"Right, so, if you can be mad at me for putting myself in danger, I can do the same. You knew there might be a trap out here. You came anyway. Why?"

Maki crossed her arms, with the frowning gesture of a mother berating a child.

"I had to oversee things," Kyouko said, flattening her lips.

"Bullshit. You have plenty of people to oversee things for you—just like you did for X‐25. Mami‐san is the only one of you Ancients with enough sense to delegate."

Kyouko started to point out how ridiculous the criticism was, but bit it down, knowing that it was at least mostly founded.

"Fine," she said. "I don't like it, but fine."

"You want to stay with me, you're not going to like everything," Maki said, leaning into her.

They stayed there, briefly, Maki's hair coiling into hers.

Inside the asteroid, Yuma was holding a hasty conference with her confidants.

The technician had found something on the healed data crystals, and had insisted Yuma view it immediately, even in incomplete form.

After downloading the small video, a very short, truncated clip of surveillance footage, she had understood what had gotten the technician so riled up, and assembled her magical girl team at the site where events had taken place, conveniently one of the rooms they had already visited.

They stood silently, arms crossed, their implants creating a shared holographic vision of events long gone.

The table was arranged for what was clearly a formal yet somber event, draped with a dark blue cloth and decorated with two pitchers of water. On it, a spherical device balanced precariously, its geometry of obvious alien design.

At that table sat three humans, the avatars of Governance AIs, one of them MG, and two Cephalopods, wearing colorful, cloth‐like material and strange metal adornments, which marked them as distinct from any other alien Yuma had ever seen. The garments most resembled tunics, except with more intricate folds and with obvious allowances for alien physiology.

"We are here because we think we have been betrayed," the device said, in Human Standard. "There was supposed to be a message delivered, before the war, but we do not think it ever was. There is, we suspect, a third party involved. We wanted to verify—"

And there the video ended, only a fragment of a file after all. The simulated bodies of its subjects stayed frozen in place, and for a long moment, so did the magical girls surrounding them, digesting the information presented.

"I told him to get back to Raven," Yuma said, "and to use whatever resources he needed to try to read the rest of the data crystals. I've already risked a transmission back to Nova Terra with the video and a sum—"

Whatever she would have said next was lost then, as Kana tilted her head upwards, mouth opening as her arms snapped outward, grabbing Rin and Arisu by their arms. Time skidded nearly to a halt as Yuma's combat reflexes came online, but even as she transformed, the three of them disappeared from sight.

Her mind hastened to parse the situation, leaning on both her magical girl abilities and Governance implants. Kana, like many of her age and type, had filled out the telecluster at some point and was a capable teleporter, but what was she doing? What could possibly—

The world around her jerked as a telekinetic force sent her flying into the air. She stopped herself with magic, hanging suspended ever so briefly, before a still‐untransformed Jeannette smashed into her.

She's wasting time worrying about Rin, some part of her reasoned, combat hyperspeed used for an almost mundane thought.

Charlotte, get them back to the ship! Kana thought with the same acceleration.

Yuma processed instantly that Charlotte had been grouping them for a teleport, reached out to Rose‐Merline's outstretched, oncoming hand, and then they reappeared on the HSS Raven that same instant, only fractions of a second since Kana had vanished. Only then did Kyouko's messages begin to arrive, leaden with transmission‐delay and loaded with diagrams of two Raptor missiles on inbound trajectories, ones which should have already concluded.

Kana and the others must have handled the missiles, she realized. There was no way they could have ever survived even a glancing hit or nearby detonation.

Raven, already taking off, informed her that Arisu had teleported both missiles beyond the asteroid, engines telekinetically crippled, aided by Kana's clairvoyance and Rin's magic‐grade computations.

Yuma dropped into a command chair, establishing a connection before most of her interface ports had even aligned.

For a moment, she saw the world with her fleet's eyes, picket ships shearing apart under a wave of attacks from an unseen assailant, until whatever sensors she was using vanished too.

Squid, she thought.

Ryouko turned her head, adjusting a mental dial that controlled perceived helmet transparency. As she looked over the rest of her MagOps squad, their faces faded slightly, blending into the absurd color and pomp of transformed armor.

They sat in the hold of their ship, in seats laid out in rows along the two walls, which were tuned to a soothing blue to conserve power. The half‐dozen or so veterans were silent, expressions stoically bored. The odd one out was Amane, one of their barrier generators, who seemed to be sharing a private joke with the girl next to her, the both of them smiling.

Simona, on the other hand, looked jittery, clasping and unclasping her hands.

The ship shook, throwing them briefly against their harnesses and sending their bones rattling with a cracking noise that seemed to echo in their skulls. Simona held onto her harness with both hands, eyes closed.

Something had glanced against their shielding, but there was no serious damage.

Ryouko sighed, rubbing her hands to relieve some of the tension.

No plan in war survived contact with the enemy. So it proved, when the pioneer ships had immediately run into a thin shell of small, carefully‐spaced transition metal asteroids.

In human terms, they were puny—individual rocks at most a few centimeters in diameter, spaced an average of a tenth of a kilometer apart.

In astronomical terms, that was unnaturally dense, and the speed of the orbit meant that an inopportune collision—for instance, into a rock traveling in an anti‐parallel orbit—involved the energy equivalent of a moderate‐size nuclear weapon. Hazardous for navigation by magical girl and frigate alike, and not safe to pilot human cruisers into.

It had been expected that the pulsar would have long ago cleared its inner orbits, or if it hadn't, that the aliens certainly would have—a cloud of relativistic debris was no one's idea of safety. Long‐range gravimetrics had seemingly borne that out. But while Asami's data had proven remarkably accurate on the whole, it hadn't been precise enough to detect the debris' scant total mass.

Fortunately, someone in the bevy of planning AIs had thought of this possibility, that the aliens would introduce an asymmetric environmental hazard—for example, by sacrificing their space‐time cargo cruisers as suicide missiles. With home field advantage and better shielding, such a tactic would give the aliens a temporary leg up.

The fleet had thus been able to adjust its approach immediately, its cruisers pulling back to give priority to an assortment of specialized defense frigates and drones that would clear out orbits. There could be no delay, no time wasted regrouping.

For a moment, Ryouko had even thought they had the problem handled.

Then the aliens deployed their second defensive measure.

"I have to hand it to them, they are extremely creative," Simona transmitted, eschewing her suit's speaker system, perhaps because she didn't trust herself to speak.

Ryouko didn't respond right away, clinging onto her straps as their frigate, the HSS María Orosa, lurched sideways.

Rather than defend the pulsar's inner orbit conventionally, the aliens had somehow turned the gravity modulators themselves into weapons, emitting massive pulses that sent everything in orbit—ships, debris, alien attack drones—into chaotic, spiraling trajectories, making it a struggle just to avoid getting too close to the star or hurled into a hyperbolic orbit. Magical girls that had been caught outside their ships had been flung away—some had not made it back, and their fates weighed on the mood of the fleet.

It also meant that Ryouko had to wait here, effectively useless, as her ship lurched this way and that to control their trajectory among a hailstorm of debris and gravitational distortions. They couldn't even watch—the ship was far too busy to feed them real‐time updates, updates they couldn't even understand without extensive cognitive offloading to their TacComps and suits.

"We're losing time," Simona added. "This is supposed to be a lightning operation, and we're just bleeding sitting here. We give them time to get external reinforcements and we're toast. We might not even be able to leave."

That last comment referred to the effect the gravitational anomalies might have on opening the wormhole to go back. If they needed to destroy the modulators just to open the wormhole again, then that meant the mission was win or die, a notion that cast all they were doing in sharp relief.

"The fleet knows that," Ryouko said, simply. She knew where Simona was coming from, the nervousness of being in your first, real combat operation, surrounded by veterans who seemed preternaturally cool.

Their MagOps team was the only one still on standby. It was mission‐critical that the two of them stay together with Asami, who was needed on the bridge, wired into the Command Gestalt so she could relay what she saw with her magic.

The rest of the fleet had begun operations, despite the conditions. Ships began attack runs, teams with teleporter support began to insert, names Ryouko knew: Azrael, Mina, Annabelle…

But they waited, even as the casualty numbers slowly climbed. The veterans took it in stride, but it wore on Simona and, honestly, Ryouko too.

"The waiting takes some getting used to," one of their squadmates said, as if following the train of thought. "But the fleet knows better than any of us, and so we have to just trust them."

The girl shrugged, then gestured with her helmet at the girl beside her.

"I can't even say I disagree with the fleet about staying here. We were assigned to you VIPs for a reason."

That was Zheng Ying‐zhi, an alumnus of the wormhole stabilizer mission, and one of the few familiar faces on Ryouko's team. Reputation and experience meant that she was the squad leader, the chains of command clear despite their hodgepodge of nearly homogeneous ranks and physical ages, all around eighteen.

"That being said, I do believe they're about to free us to deploy."

"About time," Amane said. "I'm tired of sitting here watching these two lose their minds. Getting outside will be good for them."

"They're not your kids, Amane."

"Are you sure? Don't be misled just because they look like adults."

Simona chuckled nervously, and Ryouko shook her head in feigned dismissal, closing her eyes to check her fleet uplink.

She took in the full cost‐benefit report from the fleet, the information surging into her local implant memory faster than her synapses could have normally managed. She appreciated, briefly, the extra processing Clarisse now had access to, even if it came at the cost of the body she was used to.

The alien's tactics had delayed them substantially, and only five of the twenty‐four gravity modulators had been crippled so far. At the current rate, they would not finish before alien reinforcements arrived, and would face a nightmare: sacrificing much of the fleet for a long shot pulsar glitch or, lacking a wormhole, simply dying, without hope for even a suicidal victory.

As such, the fleet needed every last insertion team in action, and they were the best—a strike force with humanity's premier gravity mage and teleporter could do a lot of work. Everyone else would just have to do without Asami's command chair input, and traverse the gravitational chaos on their own.

Ryouko was standing up before she had even finished digesting the report, her squadmates doing likewise, grouping around her.

Asami appeared moments later, visibly unhappy, the sour expression strange on a more adult face. Ryouko had almost gotten used to how much older she looked now, but it still felt weird.

"It's happening, we're cleared to engage," Asami said, stepping into place for the teleport.

She took a deep breath.

"Alright then, let's… go and get ourselves killed, I suppose."

Amane grabbed her by the shoulder, the slap of gauntlet on suit making an audible thunk.

"What you mean is, let's go and save the human race," she said, making it sound almost like a rebuke, before softening her tone:

"You'll be fine out there," she said.

Asami smiled faintly.

"Thanks, Amane."

"We have a job to do today," Ying‐zhi said, reaching out to tap her fist against the shoulder pads of the newer magical girls. "In our souls we know that we're going to do it right and do it well. That's all there really is to it. We are ready for this."

It was a speech in miniature, sappy without magical glamour to support it, but it did some of its job, lifting spirits by the sheer fact that someone was willing to say it, and even seemed to believe it.

It reminded her of something Clarisse van Rossum had done once, even if it felt like a lifetime ago. Had she grown since then?

Asami managed a slight smile, and Simona looked less shaky, so Ryouko decided it was a good time to close her eyes and concentrate on the ensuing teleport. She controlled the unofficial countdown, synchronized over their combat interface.

She took a breath, accepting a set of coordinates from the ship AI, catching the briefest of glimpses of where they would land. It was deep within the bowels of an alien station, near the center of a small, habitable pocket of rooms.

What happened next was fast even by their standards.

As she arrived, kneeling to recharge her soul gem, her teammates laced the perimeter with a killing density of magic, fire and shield wall coupling with a distorting blast that locked the world around them briefly in place. This was no stealth insertion.

Then it became apparent that the effort had been mainly overkill, and there had been no meaningful defenses lying in wait. Instead, the corpses of alien personnel lay where they fell, only a few in armor. It seemed even the aliens couldn't saturation garrison everything, especially not when it came to numerous kilometer‐size installations far in the rear.

It felt… anticlimactic, somehow.

Ryouko frowned as she stood back up. Asami and Simona moved immediately to the side of the room that connected with the gravity modulator, while the others fanned out to guard the entrances and clear the hallways. At the wormhole stabilizer there had been nuclear devices embedded in the base itself, ready to sterilize any surprise insertions—no one around the pulsar had yet encountered anything so potent.

Ryouko looked around at the bodies around her, the rounded alien architecture, the odd clothing some of them wore. It wasn't quite like the simulations—she had been presented with no chance to kill anything herself, and lacking that bloodlust she felt only a strange pity.

She watched Asami set to work, summoning a black hole and sending it directly into the wall, through which it tore an efficient fist‐sized hole. The simulations had frequently included a beautiful transparent viewing panel, and Ryouko found herself sad that she wouldn't get a chance to see the modulator directly—reportedly, it looked less like an FTL core, and more like an elegant orrery.

Ryouko knelt down again, inspecting one of the alien bodies at her feet.

How ordinary it looked! It was strange to say about what was, after all, an alien race with four arms—or rather, tentacles. But the creature lay prostrate on the ground, and while the skin was a rubbery gray‐green, the eyes had pupils, and it had died grasping the leg of a chair with, basically, hands. Ichor, smelling mostly of copper, painted the scene in the color of her soul gem.

In truth, that was all familiar. What was less familiar was the robe‐like garment it wore, covered in blue and green curlicues with a brown border, a design wholly unlike the utilitarian designs she was used to.

Looking down at it all, it was hard to be intimidated. She found herself lifting one of the arms. To a magical girl, or even to a human soldier, it was like lifting a small furniture cubelet.

Briefly, she imagined throwing the body into the wall. Perhaps that would get her into more of the combat mood.

Then she spotted Simona looking at her, and stood back up.

"Something seem wrong?" Simona asked, with a trace of nervousness.

"No, I'm just musing, I guess," Ryouko responded.

She felt a strange guilt, knowing that it wasn't really an answer, and that Simona was uneasy. In her shoes, she would have wanted some more details.

"It's just, I find it difficult at times like these not to think how similar they are to us. They're not like Incubators, they clearly have technicians and all that. And yet…"

And yet they came to kill us, Amane thought, eavesdropping on their conversation from across the room. I've wondered these things too, but in the end it doesn't matter. Even if the squid did deign to talk to us, what would it change?

"It's a shame," Asami said, oblivious to the conversation behind her. "Imagine what we could learn if we could just take one of these home."

She was referring to the gravity modulator, of course. By now they were used to these kinds of comments, so they said nothing, Simona with her hand on Asami's suit to add power, Ryouko standing by for the extraction.

To Ryouko, Asami seemed even more detached than usual, eerily focused on her task—her way of coping, perhaps, with the tension of the situation.

She felt a wave of nausea, and glimpsed the world around her stretching slightly, or maybe it was her own eyes. It passed before her implants even needed to recalibrate.

Gravity distortion, Clarisse thought, even though she had already been fed that information subconsciously. Clocks went wild for a second too, we were at ninety percent reference clock speed for about four hundred milliseconds, local.

That's normal, Ryouko thought, comparing against the telemetry from some of the other teams.

"I'm done," Asami said.

"Then let's get out of here," Simona said, somewhat unnecessarily, as the rest of their group gathered around Ryouko.

Ryouko couldn't help share the sentiment. Something about this place unnerved her.

They returned to their ship then, after as clean an engagement as they could have possibly hoped for.

But unlike even some of the more pessimistic scenarios envisioned in the simulations, they weren't able to operate outside the ship, which made insertion a slower, more delicate task. As envisioned, they would have had the luxury of spending some time spaceborne, using randomized sequential teleports to make their approach and target much less predictable. Instead, that had to be done purely through ship maneuvers, which took longer to achieve the same effect.

For better or worse, that gave her more time to think, as the group cleansed their soul gems and reviewed the state of the operation as a whole. Fortunately, the loss of six more modulators—to make eleven so far, just under half the total—meant the aliens' gravity hurling effects were weaker, and they didn't need to strap in just to avoid slamming into bulkheads.

After all the simulations, after an extremely tumultuous insertion, that modest turn in their favor felt surreal, even if, in some sense, they had needed that breakthrough in the battle. They had needed it to be the case that further gravity modulators could be picked off in more‐or‐less rapid succession, without punishing losses. Now, they simply needed to maintain their new pace.

Did that mean they had things under control, or that they were desperate?

"You're looking melancholy," Amane said, appearing next to her.

She looked up. Amane had her helmet off, smiling as she lifted what had once been a Breaker laser cannon, magically transfigured into an assemblage of brass and moving gears that… still did pretty much the same thing, just with magical girl fire rate and specs. As she watched, it vented a bit of steam.

It looked picturesque, she thought. Almost as if it were out of a movie. Helmet off, winning smile, the backdrop of the ship's armory to fill in the negative space, racks and racks of conventional infantry weapons, should they choose to bring any.


"Shouldn't you have your helmet on?" Ryouko asked. "I might need to do an emergency teleport at any time."

Amane shrugged, the embellished smile fading.

"If that were really a concern, we would be standing together, not scattered about the ship. Besides, don't you trust a barrier generator to be ready for this sort of thing?"

She made a flexing motion with one arm, as if it was even possible to see anything under the layers of armor. Ryouko made sure to roll her eyes slightly.

"Really though, I'd like to know what you're thinking about," Amane said, leaning over. "You seem off."

Ryouko thought about it, feeling a trace of annoyance.

"I guess I'm just a bit overwhelmed. Am I supposed to look happy or something? Why don't you ask Simona or Asami? They look more nervous than I do."

The girl's smile faded entirely. With a flash of magic, her weapon shrunk in size enough that she could sling it on her back.

"Yeah, I guess I'm overstepping a little, but their reactions I understand. You, you're just sitting here. That's a new one for me."

Ryouko couldn't give the whole truth, about the visions or the foreboding, or the thoughts she had to entertain about possibly being protected, even while the others weren't. She couldn't quite feel the same as them.

"Despite my reputation," she said, the words sounding strange even as she said them, "I have not been in that much combat. Not really, only a few missions. I don't know what to do with myself. I know it's not supposed to be a great time or anything, it's just… tense."

"I've read your files," Amane said. "And I know you know that. If that's all it were I wouldn't be saying anything."

She seemed to mull over what to say, then put her helmet back on, the interlocks closing silently.

"I'm not as good at reading people as one of the older folks," Amane said, through her speakers this time, "but if I had to guess, you feel like we expect you to be a hero, after what happened at Orpheus. Trust me, you don't have to live up to that. All we see is a kid on one of her first missions. You don't have to prove anything—just stick with us, and we'll see you through this. That's all we expect. Let me and Yingling take the pressure."

Ryouko nodded, as if she agreed with the sentiment, feeling like a liar. There was no way she could really explain.

"Call me that again and I'll throw you into the star myself," Ying‐zhi said, marking her entrance with a pantomimed punch into Amane's gut. "Who told you about that nickname?"

"I have my sources," Amane said. She put both hands over her stomach in mock agony, winking at Ryouko.

"How about this?" Ying‐zhi asked. "No more nicknames for the rest of the mission, and I'll bail you out of this conversation. Give Ryouko some real advice."

"Sounds like a lose‐lose to me," Amane said. But she left the armory nonetheless, giving Ryouko a wave goodbye and taking a pistol off the far rack.

Ying‐zhi turned to look at Ryouko, and Ryouko wondered if there was a non‐awkward way to ask her not to take off her helmet, or if it was safer just not to bring it up at all.

"I heard what she said," Ying‐zhi said. "She's not wrong, but I was with you on that mission. I know there's another side to you. I'm sure you'll find it."

She gave Ryouko a reassuring shoulder pat, and this time Ryouko shrugged vaguely, again concealing her true reaction.

A different side? Ryouko thought. I mainly just remember going berserk when a teammate died.

I don't have to tell you you're letting it get to you too much, Clarisse thought. You shouldn't brood like this.

Clarisse's tone was neutral, but Ryouko heard the rebuke anyway. Perhaps a bit of worry, too, not quite tucked away. It was harder to tell with Clarisse out of the hologram form that had become so familiar on Adept Blue.

"I'll do what I need to do," Ryouko said, standing up. The decisiveness was even mostly authentic.

"That's my girl," Ying‐zhi said, smiling and raising her hand, on top of which appeared… what seemed to be a cartoonish hologram of Ryouko herself, giving a thumbs‐up sign.

"I found this on the net," she said. "You have fans out there. Don't take too long. We'll need you soon."

They seem to have totally different ideas of what you need, Clarisse thought, as Ying‐zhi restocked and left the armory as well. I suppose that's fair, since you don't really know either. You may as well head out; it's nearly time.

As she stepped out of the room, she nearly collided with Simona, who jumped backward in surprise.

"Sorry," she said, as they instinctively tried to make eye contact, and then immediately broke it.

Ryouko turned to join the others, and Simona followed.

It's not easy, being out here, Simona thought. I thought I knew what it was like to be in dangerous situations, but the waiting, the tension, is something else. I… envy you your place in things. Me, all I can do is pick a single green light to guide me.

Ryouko blinked, glad Simona couldn't see her expression. The subtext was, well, obvious, and it took her a moment to notice what Simona had said about envy.

"I'll try to live up to those expectations," she said. "Most of them, at least."

Yet again, she couldn't admit the truth. She had some idea of what her place was in the world. It just hadn't made things much better.

That was a scary thought.

It was with relief that she remembered that the mission timer in her subconscious was running out. The jump window was brief; it was time to go.

They stepped into the rec area, where the other girls had gathered.

"We all ready?" Ying‐zhi asked simply.

When there was no objection, she raised a hand, and they grasped each other's arms, forming the necessary chain of contact for Ryouko's teleport.

Then they were there, and like the previous run, it was a slaughter, even if this time the aliens seemed better prepared, with more soldiers, fewer civilian personnel, and a better drone complement near the modulator.

When the bedazzling display of color was over, their barrier generators dropped their shields for a moment.

"Ugh," Ying‐zhi vocalized, restoring her barrier almost instantaneously as a flash of pain rippled through them, internal radiation alarms blaring. Amane added her own, only a fraction of a second later, a wall of steam settling into place.

Blasting an area with radiation was by this point in the war a classic anti‐magical girl tactic, effective at penalizing magical girl teams who lacked appropriate defenses. It was so classic that they had come totally prepared for it.

Ying‐zhi's golden barrier shimmered and flashed as it absorbed the invisible punishment, then an accompanying blast of deliberate gravitational stress, also anticipated. Some barrier generators were not capable of sealing out something like gravity, but Ryouko's protectors were, and Asami was able to donate some protection as well, even if it didn't come in the form of a visible wall.

Outside the barrier, corpses and equipment flung around the room with violent speed, powered by the gravity modulator itself, and some slammed physically into Amane's barrier, disintegrating on contact.

"Damn, they're getting better at this," someone said.

"They'd be stupid not to, or I'd think it's getting too easy," Amane said. "Come on, let's do this."

The radiation subsided soon after—not the easiest thing to generate persistently—but the gravitational oscillations persisted, forcing them to move towards the side of the room facing the modulator with barriers up. There was at least one benefit: the usual onslaught of alien infantry and drones could not proceed, so in a way all they needed to do was keep their barrier generators fed with grief cubes.

The immediate danger had passed and now, against her better judgment, Ryouko couldn't stop thinking about Simona's situation, and hers. Perhaps it was time to ask.

So I wanted to ask, Ryouko thought, directly to Simona.


What do you think of the Goddess?

There was a palpable silence, partially explained by Simona focusing on helping Asami with her task.

Nothing much, really. I certainly haven't seen her in my life. But I've followed you enough to know that you seem to think you have. It must be nice.

The tone of the thought was unexpectedly bitter, and Simona seemed to realize that, adding:

Look, like I said, I envy you. And admire you, of course. It only stands to reason a Goddess would pay attention to you, and not to me. That's probably why you're not very nervous.

Again, the tone was biting, but Ryouko found that she couldn't begrudge it.

From her perspective, having a sublime and merciful goddess controlling your life must seem like quite a step up from having a shadowy conspiracy doing the same, Clarisse thought. No visible strings.

Almost no visible strings, Ryouko corrected.

Wait, but do you think she's real? Ryouko asked, addressing the hole in Simona's statement.

Again, Simona waited to respond, but before she did, a streak of concern from Asami cut her off.

Ryouko sent Asami an inquisitive ping.

Something wrong? They have extra defenses somehow? Ryouko asked, though she struggled to imagine what kind of non‐magical defense could stop a mobile black hole.

No, Asami thought. I'm feeling something… strange. Something is wrong. Not with us. With the operation. I need to focus. Just give me a moment to finish this.

Her sharp sense of worry pervaded the team's shared telepathic connection. As one, they turned to their connections to Command, checking for updates.

The notification came through before they could even ask.

There is a tremendous amount of gravitational flux near the southerly magnetic pole of the pulsar, Clarisse thought, having parsed the material first. From what we've concluded is their actual mining infrastructure. It is difficult to say what this means, since the fleet has been unable to build a solid model for space‐time mining, despite the hardened probes returning good data.

She didn't say it, but there was other bad news. A large alien response force had blinked in just outside the system, and elements of it would be back online soon. This they had known would happen, but that didn't make it any better.

There were a few scenarios we ran back during the simulations, where the mines dumped their stores of space‐time, or blew themselves up, or triggered a pulsar glitch, one of the other team members commented.

A lot of possibilities, Clarisse agreed. Whatever it is, it can't be good, and what are we even supposed to do? Send teams to attack it? Run?

Well, they better make a decision quickly, Amane thought. We definitely can't just wait.

This time, when Asami breached the inner containment, they had barriers up, so the ensuing space‐time ripple passed by them harmlessly.

The space station shuddered, as expected. But then the tremors didn't stop.

We need to get back to the ship, Asami thought, with a tinge of desperation. Something big is going on. It feels like the aliens are tearing into the space near the pulsar. I don't know why. We need to get back. Please cover me.

Without explanation, Asami blinked a few times, then gained the glassy‐eyed look of someone immersing themselves more deeply into the fleet gestalt, but who didn't want to close their eyes.

Ryouko? Ying‐zhi asked.

Working on it, she thought.

Asami blinked rapidly, her expression darkening with worry as she seemed to wake up again.

Something else is wrong, she thought, with combat speed. And it's close to us.

A sickening feeling gathered in Ryouko's stomach, as the congregated magical girls looked at her in confusion as nothing happened.

I can't teleport, she thought, her soul gem shimmering. I'm being blocked. I don't know how that's possible.

Are you sure? Ying‐zhi asked, telepathy like a razor. What if you—

I'm sure. Magic instinct.

Asami closed her eyes for a long few seconds, searching for something.

I know what they're doing with the mines, she thought. They're ripping our wormhole back open—it'll be torn apart if I don't get back.