As Humanity expands into the void, we have no expectation that we will find there only governments of similar construction and ideology. On the contrary, our own experience, and our best modeling, shows that even within the limited scope of our imagination, there are many potentially dominant world‐systems. Any sapient advanced races encountered may be ideologically mutually‐tolerable, in which case we may engage in neutral or friendly relations, or perhaps even profitable trade. Detailed proposals for managing this scenario are included…

[…]

Or one party will find the other anathema, or a target for conquest. In that case, the odds are overwhelming that the result will be a simple matter of whichever race was the first to evolve. In that case, for better or worse, there is little to discuss.

The most intriguing case is the one in which an alien society is divided against itself. This is by far the least likely possibility—less than one percent of our simulations end without homeworld unification, and only a few percent of such unified governments suffer permanent schism—but it has absorbed a disproportionate amount of internal planning. For only in this scenario may even an inferior species conspire to advantage its goals…

— Directorate Report on Eschatological Matters, Executive Summary, 2423, excerpt.

μ·We all agree that the constraint, the modification of sapient intelligence, is moral anathema, to be done only in response to greater moral need|ν·We all agree that the core operations of Consensus must be managed by independent, neutral beings, who prefer honesty and impartiality and Consensus above all|μν·Those of us nine hundred and seventy most inclined must sacrifice, and modify their pref‐specs to become the beginning of Consensus Core

— 000009R⊃Besmircher's‐Bane, Consensus Archives.

"I have seen the end of history, and trust me, you do not want to be there."

— Chitose Yuma, popularly misattributed to Clarisse van Rossum.


It wasn't one straight jump, galactic core to galactic core. Instead, they routed through the intergalactic void, guests to wandering star systems and rogue black holes, watched by the two great, spiral eyes of the Milky Way and Andromeda.

Which meant that, yes, the aliens had found small oases of gravitationally‐bound systems to establish wormholes in, out in the wilderness between galaxies. The Thinkers had ventured out from Andromeda the slow way, by standard FTL, stopping to build wormhole stabilizers and other necessary facilities at apt locales. The work had continued for over a thousand years, until finally the great chain was complete all the way to the center of the Milky Way.

That the implications about Cephalopod capabilities were immense would be understating the matter. The aliens were even willing to discuss the relevant technology, for once, as it was surprisingly prosaic: cruiser‐sized ships optimized for hauling exotic matter fuel on single month‐long journeys, who continually built up fuel dumps until the next system could be reached by cargo and construction vessels.

Even with all that, Lush‐Botanist could not reach Andromeda too easily. Ryouko would have nearly a full week between galaxies.

It was, at least, a good opportunity for some reflection.

She had already spent plenty of time digging into the notion of pref‐specs, and the newly uncovered organ in her brain dedicated to pref‐spec management. More than simply providing her access to Cephalopod communication and mindsets, it had the unsettling ability to alter her own pref‐spec.

Supposedly, anyway. Magical girls were supposed to be able to resist alterations to their mental states and core identities, with the soul gem serving as guarantor. But did changing yourself follow the same rule?

It was difficult to wrap her mind around what that even meant, but apparently self‐alteration wasn't uncommon among the aliens—besides the binding‐preference‐alteration‐agreements, for instance, it was normal to deliberately increase one's suitability for a necessary long‐term task just before performing it, with provision for a mandatory reset later.

Not too different from specialist AIs undergoing reprogramming, Clarisse pointed out, a day into the trip, as Ryouko lay down on her bed.

Though not too similar either, Clarisse added, when she didn't respond right away. There are also some rumors that telepaths can temporarily alter themselves.

Ryouko summoned her soul gem, setting it on the nearby shelf next to a grief cube. The shelf was recessed in the wall and seemed to be of a bony material that was nonetheless capable of changing shape on command.

Instinctively, she checked the grief cube. Nearly full, she thought. She'd have to replace it after this.

There's even a pref‐spec changelog, Ryouko thought. I wonder…

She inspected the changelog with an act of mental focus. The results appeared in her mind a moment later.

Though mine is empty. I guess that shouldn't be too surprising.

Ryouko felt an odd sense of discomfort from Clarisse.

I wouldn't be so sure, Clarisse thought. Your empathy‐organ wasn't fully functional until Peace‐cultivating completed it; the logging may not have been working.

Ryouko thought about that.

You might know better than me. Still, it's not like I was using this thing before. Haven't you been monitoring it?

Another wave of discomfort.

Yes, but only since we learned about it in Paris, Clarisse thought, At this point, I'm pretty sure I know what it might look like to actually trigger a pref‐spec modification, and while I can say with some confidence none have happened since then…

There was a palpable silence, and Ryouko felt a sense of unease spreading within her.

Are you trying to tell me something, Clarisse? she asked, finally.

How much do you want to hear it? Clarisse asked. I'm not entirely sure about it; I can't be, without asking the aliens for their analysis. I wouldn't want to say anything, except for that you've said you want to be informed about matters like this.

Ryouko swallowed slightly. She had said that, but of course Clarisse's judgment about these matters was pretty good—whatever this was, she really wasn't going to like it.

But she didn't believe in lying to herself, at least in theory, and she had been inundated recently by unpleasant revelations. How bad could this one be?

Go ahead, she thought.

I think you modified your pref‐spec when you first agreed to be Asami's girlfriend. I didn't have any reason to pay special attention to your brain activity at the time, so my recordings are incomplete, but I think it's at least more likely than not.

Clarisse's caveats faded into the background as the notion worked itself into Ryouko's mind. Now that the idea had been said out loud, it made… just too much sense. Clarisse didn't need to explain what specific moment she was referring to, or even that it was a moment; Ryouko remembered well how it had felt, the feeling of a lever in her mind, the sense of choice, and certainty.

I wouldn't think about it too much, Clarisse thought, soothingly. People change themselves all the time, and always have, and AIs sometimes edit themselves. This isn't very different. Plus, we're not even sure.

Ryouko felt a chill start to grip her heart, but found to her surprise that it passed quickly. Indeed, she remembered how it had felt—remembered how isolated she had felt, how isolated she knew Asami felt, and how much she had wanted to fix that. She had wanted to change, and to be able to reciprocate Asami's feelings, in her own way.

So she had decided to change. Was it really so bad?

Let's talk to Peace‐cultivating, Clarisse suggested. As I said, the aliens might be able to help with this analysis. And the underlying philosophy regarding sentients. After all, the aliens change their pref‐specs without worrying about it too much.

Ryouko wasn't sure how to broach a topic like that, but did her best to convince herself she was being silly: the Cephalopods didn't have emotions, and she could only imagine that they would be more than willing to field questions about her own pref‐spec, which had continued to fascinate them.

It took her a few seconds to understand why she felt so nervous even asking. It felt like some kind of judgment on her relationship with Asami, she realized, clenching some of her lumpy blanket in her hands. Like it was somehow less real if a pref‐spec modification had really happened. How would she act, the next time she met Asami? Would she doubt her own feelings?

And, perhaps worse, what would Asami think? She would have to tell her.

But there was no getting around it, and after a bit of prevarication, she formulated the question, even forwarding a data file of neural recordings that Clarisse claimed she had reformatted into something the aliens might better understand.

Ryouko swallowed her trepidations about sharing a neural recording. The aliens had literally been doing surgery on her recently, after all.

She sat up from the bed, dropping her feet over the side and letting the lumpy blanket cling to her.

It took a moment for Peace‐cultivating, elsewhere in the ship, to reply to her:

!μ·An exquisite puzzle; you have my thanks|v·Indeed, your pref‐spec changelog could not have functioned until I completed your empathy‐organ|μ+·I will run your neural traces through Lush‐Botanist's analysis engine, as your unfamiliar physiology may otherwise mislead me

|v·I see|μ·Thank you, I will wait, Ryouko thought, because there really wasn't much else to say.

She had come to prefer Lush‐Botanist to Peace‐cultivating, in the few days she had known them. Peace‐cultivating's zeal for mutual understanding was a bit unnerving to her, even in the cause of peace, and made it more difficult to keep the secrets she was holding onto.

μ∪·My results report a very high likelihood‒94% that you successfully managed to self‐modify|μ∪·Your neural activity was far above baseline and consistent with a moderate write operation|ξ∈?·Do you have any similar experiences to report—your pref‐spec implies that larger changes than this have occurred during your life|ξ∈?·Do you find these notions unpleasant

Ryouko didn't answer right away, struck by the dual surprises that the change had been comparatively minor and that the alien had successfully surmised her mood.

She barely understood her own thoughts on the matter. What hope did she have translating it for an alien?

||ξ·No, nothing like this|ξ∈·I am not sure if I should find it unpleasant—our species is not used to the idea of changing our preferences so directly|ξ∈·I am… worried that I undermined the integrity of my mind, and my relationship

The reply took a few seconds.

·Your worries ≈ confusing the sky for the sea|+·You value control over your life, as you should, and pref‐spec‐modification is the essential form of control|+·Personal integrity, and identity, is rooted in meaningful control over self, watered by memories, actions, and social ties—and, unfortunately, endangered by reality‐warping

Ryouko frowned, turning the argument over in her mind. In retrospect, it shouldn't have been surprising that the aliens would see nothing wrong with pref‐spec‐modification, or that they'd identify magic instead as the potentially corruptive ability. That was what the war was supposed to be about, after all.

She wondered what Peace‐cultivating would think, if he knew about how Asami's wish had altered her parents.

The alien sent nothing further, so Ryouko closed their telepathic connection, uncertain what she had achieved.

It's not exactly a Hollywood romance, Clarisse thought. But I think he has a point about pref‐spec‐modification. I'd argue that humans push themselves into enjoying all kinds of things, including relationships. You did it yourself, with Asami, apart from your empathy‐organ. When you pushed yourself to tell Asami you loved her, for example, you didn't activate it. I'm not sure the type of chemicals or organ involved really matter, ultimately.

It's a bold claim to say that the alien organ in my brain doesn't really matter, Ryouko thought sardonically.

She took a while to think more seriously on the topic.

Still, she thought, there is also what he said about memories and actions. Everything I've done with Asami since then, and before then, is bigger than a single decision. I could have broken things off. Honestly, Asami could have too—I know she wanted to just hide at home and cuddle. But she went out to X‐25 and the pulsar for my sake.

I don't know if I would say it was entirely for your sake, Clarisse thought, but I think Asami would broadly agree. She would mostly just want you back alive.

Ryouko looked at her soul gem, which had finished discharging on its shelf, and nodded.


I hope you're not forgetting about me out there, amidst all the excitement. I know a relationship with me wasn't how you envisioned things.

Asami frowned, chewing over the thought, then struck the lines out. It sounded way too clingy and insecure, even if it was honestly a bit how she felt. More importantly, they had been together long enough that she could trust Ryouko not to lose interest in her.

Obviously I don't know what's happening to you, or what you're doing, but if this could reach you, I'd want you to know I am waiting for your return. The Goddess did us the courtesy of telling me you lived. I hope friendlier aliens really are a thing. Not just for your sake, but for everyone's sake.

Better, even if it sounded pretty sappy. Really, how was she supposed to avoid sounding sappy? Sappy was just how this kind of thing was. The important thing was that it expressed her real feelings, and that the recipient could tell that. She wasn't here to write empty bromides; otherwise, the writing would do no good in consolidating her feelings.

And that was the point, after all. It wasn't like Asami could actually send any letters to Ryouko. These were for herself, to help her unburden her heart, as Arisu had put it.

She continued:

They held your funeral a few days ago. It was all very surreal to have to undergo. I hated it, of course, the whole experience of having to play pretend, because I don't want to look all crazy and wild‐eyed, if that makes sense.

She thought about those lines. Ryouko liked explicit, even pedantic explanations of feeling, so being direct was fine. And if she sounded more formal than usual: well, it was a letter. So what? But where was she going with this?

I thought I could relax when it was all over, but instead I find myself stuck in a state of tension. Your old friend—it's kind of funny to me to call her that—Mami‐san got caught by a reporter visiting the Ribbon, along with Chitose Yuma, and they were overheard talking about their visions with the Goddess. So now there's going to be news about that, and they're going to have to explain about all that, and why they think you're alive.

Asami paused for a moment.

None of that explains why I'm involved, of course. Apparently the Cult couldn't keep a lid on things, so when I visited and learned you were alive, people heard all about it. Well, that's mostly Simona's fault for yelling about it to anyone who would listen, but I don't think I should have been put in that position.

But at least I get the executive treatment now, since I'm mixed in with Mami‐san and Chitose and the like. Their PR staff and social media people are helping manage my internet presence. It's kind of relieving to be honest. I can just sort of let them do the work.

She let out a breath. She hated to admit it, but the MHD was right. This was a nice way to unwind. She had been avoiding thinking about this whole topic, but now it didn't seem so bad.

It's still pretty stressful though. A lot of people have been trying to talk to me—Aniki is convinced I've been brainwashed. I've got meetings I have to go, to plan how we're going to present things. Or fake things, as the case may be.

Her internal chronometer nudged at her, and she felt a pang of annoyance.

Speaking of those meetings…

She had been called to half a dozen meetings so far, all about coordinating their stories regarding Ryouko and the so‐called TCF conspiracy. It had by this point lost any novelty, but it still made for a change of pace.

She was even looking forward to this particular meeting, even if it had interrupted her letter‐writing. Kyouko had invited her alone, leaving out the others—Azrael, Patricia, occasionally Yuma or Van Rossum—that usually attended.

Kyouko offered her the chance to discuss some questions in private, and she intended to take advantage of it.

So she changed outfits and rearranged her hair, making sure to display prominently the flower Ryouko had given her, which had settled in quite well among the strands, and even attracted the occasional bee or butterfly. She had made sure everyone knew where it was from.

It was a short trip over to Kyouko's office in the Mitakihara Armory, too short to give her much time to continue her letter, especially not when she passed right by the construction site encompassing the former Prometheus Research Institute, giving her a view that was worth paying attention to.

She had been to this meeting spot a few times already. While she still felt a bit out of place there, amidst the Cult of Hope, she had been feeling more positive about them lately. They believed her about Ryouko, after all.

Kyouko set the tone with a straightforward briefing, as soon as Asami arrived. There was a brief discussion of the news following recent events—Sacnite had asked Asami to accompany her to the Ribbon, and Nakase had ended up coming as well, though none of them had ended up seeing anything.

Chiyo Rika had portrayed it neutrally, but apparently visiting the Ribbon had been a bad idea. Apparently, there was an entire conspiracy theory brewing, fed directly by claims made by the TCF conspiracy, that Ryouko, Simona, Sacnite, and Azrael were part of some kind of genetically‐engineered cabal, puppets of either the Cult or someone who controlled the Cult. They were all way too connected for it to be a coincidence, after all.

That kind of nonsense, and frank bigotry, frustrated Asami more than any of the rumors about her did. It was all so stupid, and she was happy to let the Cult and MSY media handlers deal with it for her.

At least there was good news on the war front—despite all the chaos in Human space, the aliens had actually been forced to abandon some of their most forward positions in recent days. The bunkered remains of the colony of Penglai had been rescued that very morning, in fact, and Governance was making sure to credit Ryouko and Asami's great blow to Ceph logistics for the victory.

In general, the party line across all recent events had been: the TCF conspiracy managed no lasting physical damage to Humanity, and as long as the public rejected their attempt to sow distrust and disunion, there would be minimal social damage as well. One only needed patience, to wait for the good news that the enemy had been chased down and dismantled.

"Frankly, we're just telling people everything is fine without really knowing that's true," Asami said, when the time finally came. "There's so much being left out. Like the assassination attempts. I don't care how much we tell people everything is under control, it did not feel under control to have a support beam blown through my gut. There didn't seem to be an MSY master plan then."

Kyouko peered at her a moment, then sighed, taking a sip of her milk tea. It was a bold move, trying to get an Ancient off‐balance with a sharp change in topic, but Asami figured it was worth a shot. It had been gnawing at her, all the constant talk of media and public image—didn't someone need to go out and actually put a stop to whoever had breached the TCF? Was everyone just counting on Homura to handle that?

"We badly misjudged the threat. They were more powerful than we thought they were, and we were too distracted with our individual concerns. We know better, now."

Kyouko paused, weighing her teacup in her hand.

"Frankly, I've never apologized to you for all the shit you've gone through. It is your right to be angry about it, so I'm sorry. Sorry we haven't been able to protect you, haven't been able to fix this world, sorry we're still sending girls like you off to war. We, the MSY, were given that responsibility, and we haven't fulfilled it. Because, right now, we can't."

Kyouko tilted her head slightly, regarding Asami's surprised reaction with interest.

"Or, at least, we Ancients can't. Because of our age, because of our wisdom, we're expected to be special, and we were given leadership to watch over our juniors. But in the end, we are only the sum of our years. For the truly difficult problems, we need you to chip in. It was you and Ryouko who saved my life at X‐25. I haven't forgotten that."

She set her teacup down, looking Asami in the eye.

Asami had been ready to yell at Kyouko for not doing enough, and found herself undermined by what was nearly a rehearsed speech, an apology, asking for help.

Then…

Asami took a breath.

"You said something about chipping in, but chipping into what? Is that a recruitment pitch? I haven't heard anything about what the MSY is doing, only what Governance is doing."

She paused, weighing her next words.

"Unless that's what Akemi Homura has been up to," she said cautiously. "I know about that whole thing, with Joanne Valentin. Is she secretly…"

Kyouko tapped the edge of her desk, as if to interrupt her.

"We don't know what she is doing," she said, eyes cast to the side. "The fact is, she won't talk to us."

She used one hand to push her hair back.

"Listen, the fact is, we are doing more, but I can't just tell you everything you want to hear, not unless you're ready to commit to making it so you need to know. That means I need to ask what your stance is here. I said I wanted you to chip in, but there's more than one way of doing that. Would you like to be involved with hunting the TCF conspiracy, or would you prefer to stay solely on the wormhole research?"

Asami peered into Kyouko's expression, the eyes carefully watching her, and found to her surprise that she could very much read it. She meant what she said.

"I mean, it depends on what it would involve," Asami said. "But yes. I barely know what to do with myself right now, and I'm tired of just letting things happen to us, to me. It'd be better to be on the offensive. Though I'm not sure how it would fit around the wormhole and blink research I'm scheduled to be returning to soon."

"That can be postponed," Kyouko said. "I've already talked with Mami‐san about this—it may not hurt to wait on that until Shizuki‐san's return anyway. But are you sure you don't just want to keep your focus there? It could also be the case that you'd be able to contribute to a significant breakthrough on your own."

"I've had a while to think," Asami said. "What I really want is to be with Ryouko, but I can't have that, now can I? And maybe I'm supposed to go work on wormholes so that we can use those to get her back, but the Goddess didn't say anything like that, so I'm just guessing anyway."

She shook her head.

"I'd rather break down all this mystery and conspiracy that's haunted Ryouko and me, so that when she comes back, we don't have to live with it hanging over our heads anymore."

Kyouko pursed her lips.

"That sounds good enough for me. Let me fill you in a bit, then."

She leaned forward.

"Because of the dissatisfaction with our past performance and investigations, as well as the failure in preventing the recent attacks, a secret task force has been established to work on the matter, absorbing the existing efforts in this direction. It has a pretty hefty budget, leadership from the senior MSY, and we're taking on a good number of experienced personnel. We're still spinning that up, but there are a number of efforts already underway."

"If you are interested, then I would imagine your specialty would be in fieldwork, particularly in investigating sites suspected of a connection to either the TCF conspiracy or to what Akemi Homura is up to. It's, frankly, what you have the most experience in, and we'd be glad to use you as a detector for stealth devices such as the one we encountered on X‐25. The military would probably try to hang us if we got someone as important as you killed, so it'd be low‐risk missions, and I already have Azrael Maslanka designated as your initial partner, to help you get up to speed."

The torrent of words washed over her, and she couldn't help but react with surprise at the mention of Azrael.

"She's involved?" Asami asked.

"Yes," Kyouko said. "It's the kind of work she does, and she's already worked on pursuing Homura before, so it's natural."

Asami mentally noted the lack of honorific on "Homura".

"Well, I can't say I object to working with her," she said. "Honestly, I'm a bit relieved it's her."

"Not just her," Kyouko said. "There's a small working group we're trying to get off the ground. The main angle will be tracking down Homura but it won't be limited to that, just because of how much crossover there is with dealing with the TCF conspiracy. That being said, everyone involved has some connection to the topic, and even better, you should already be familiar with most of them. There's Shizuki‐san's aunt, Shizuki Nana, who used to own this case file. There's your training cohort colleague Zhou Meiqing, who was her new recent recruit. And then there's Simona del Mago."

Kyouko paused meaningfully, letting Asami catch up with the sentence.

"The personal history here is obvious—" Kyouko began.

"What, letting her sabotage one mission wasn't enough?" Asami interrupted. "Isn't she supposed to be serving time somewhere?"

"This is part of her penance, as part of a deal with Yuma," Kyouko said, closing her eyes for a moment. "Yuma can be awfully forgiving, if she can make you useful. I agreed, because I suspect Del Mago's Homura connection is useful and important, and I'd like to keep an eye on her. Frankly, if you don't like it, you're under no obligation to work with her directly. There will be multiple roles."

Asami could only shake her head. She couldn't believe this.

The obvious temptation was to back out, but that was just too obviously self‐defeating. And she couldn't even justify the spite necessary to protest further; in the end, Ryouko had lived, so Asami wouldn't bury a dagger in Simona's back at all costs.

Maybe only at some cost.

Besides, would Ryouko have let a little social awkwardness, a little pride, stand in the way of the better choice? No, she was almost too calculating in that regard—though perhaps that was Clarisse's influence.

"I guess I'll just have to accept that," she said finally, knowing Kyouko had watched the emotions play out on her face. "What now then?"

Kyouko smiled slightly.

"Order a drink from the bots. Let's get you oriented."


Near the end of the trip to Andromeda, Ryouko found herself seated on the sand in the ship's oasis, reviewing the details of the new system they were in. This one was named Red Chain Four. Red, because it was a red dwarf, and Chain Four, because it was in the middle of an unusually long chain of red dwarves, gravitationally bound in the midst of intergalactic space. Stellar density was increasing again, and soon a few stars in a row would cease to be notable.

The system was otherwise unremarkable, though it did contain a small rocky world with a struggling population of prokaryotes.

The drone she had asked for finally arrived, and she reached out with one hand to drop in a used grief cube, destined for ejection into deep space. Feathered‐Defender unfurled his head and leaned over for a closer look, making a quiet trilling noise—she had warned the bird about the dangers of contacting grief cubes, but it seemed reluctant to believe her.

But something made her pause before releasing the grief cube, and when the snake‐like drone looked up in apparent confusion, Ryouko realized why.

Ejecting cubes into deep space! How uncouth! the Incubator said, materializing into existence next to the drone. It will be unnecessarily difficult recovering that lost energy.

It took Ryouko only a moment to conclude that, yes, this was Kyubey, the famous Mitakihara Incubator that had contracted her.

She had been slow to hide her look of shock, and Feathered‐Defender had properly woken up, sidling towards her defensively. She reached out and patted its head reassuringly.

Sorry, she thought. Everything is fine. Go back to sleep.

It squawked unhappily.

Will trust you, it thought.

She had to be careful now—if she showed signs of talking to an invisible creature, there would surely be questions.

What are you doing here? she demanded.

Checking in on you, the Incubator thought, trotting in a circle around the still‐waiting drone. I thought you might still be alive and in need of my services.

She knew enough of MSY rumor to know that the Incubators were not exactly trustworthy. More likely than not, she concluded, the Incubator had come to spy on her, and see what was going on between her and the Thinkers.

A series of thoughts passed through her mind, including a few slipped in by Clarisse.

Okay, first off, I have not told any of the aliens about you, she thought. Please don't break my cover here.

I will not, the Incubator said, pulling to a stop and sitting down. In fact, I am already altering the relevant surveillance records. It was wise of you to choose secrecy. That is our default policy.

The aliens on this ship claim that they are divided into factions, and that the faction attacking us is doing so on false pretenses. Did you know about this? Know about it and still allow it to happen?

We don't comment on the internal affairs of other species, nor do we routinely monitor them, Kyubey said. Moreover, aside from necessities driven by grief cube harvesting, we are a neutral party in conflicts. Perhaps as a junior magical girl, you do not know this, but the MSY certainly does. Consult your internal records.

The response raised her hackles, but she did her best to calm herself. Incubator policy was known, and it had been almost a silly question.

Or rather, an emotional question, she supposed.

She closed her eyes, trying to make it look to any monitors like she was in deep thought, or perhaps falling asleep.

Well, now that you're here, you can do a lot to help me, she said. Will you relay a message back to the MSY for me?

An ambitious question, but anything she could get out of the Incubator would be worth it. If she could even get a line open indirectly with Governance…

No I will not, Kyubey thought. We don't facilitate interstellar communications as a matter of course, and here we could be interfering in the affairs of multiple species.

It was a disappointing answer, one that again raised her hackles, but again not inconsistent with what she already knew about Incubator policy. Though, as Clarisse was reminding her, the policy was not exactly ironclad. Kyubey's ambivalent language suggested as much.

Unfortunately, the firmest part of the rule was also the part most valuable to her—she wasn't going to get Kyubey to, say, facilitate peace negotiations.

Can you at least let them know I'm alive? she asked. Maybe for some compensation?

Kyubey stood back up, stretching his back with paws forward like a cat waking up from a nap.

There is no need to, it thought. Your mentors and partner all believe you to be alive, based on information given in a vision with the Goddess. I believe that will satisfy you emotionally?

It took an effort for Ryouko to suppress a reaction. It was a tremendous relief for Asami to believe she was alive, and if even Kyouko and the others believed it—

Wait, hold on, Clarisse thought. Vision with the Goddess?

What?

Since when would an Incubator refer to 'the Goddess' so unambiguously?

He did show up both of the times I visited the Ribbon…

Can you ask?

This time Ryouko couldn't resist opening her eyes, trying to steal a glance at the Incubator, only to find that it was already fading away.

Are you really just going to leave? she demanded. What did you mean by vision with the Goddess? What about the grief cube I'm holding?

I mean just that, of course. And it'd be troublesome to hide a cube disappearing inside the ship, so I'll pick it up when the ship dumps it.

And then it was gone.

What the hell? she thought.


When they finally arrived at M31 , the black hole center of Andromeda, and Ryouko looked at the sky with the overlay given to her, the galactic center was filled with an overwhelming number of dots—neighboring wormhole relays, scientific outposts, inhabited worlds.

Military installations were few and far between. Perhaps she simply wasn't being shown most of them, but somehow she doubted it: she could only imagine how ridiculous the notion of a military threat would seem to such a civilization.

And all of this, two weeks away from human space! She felt as if she had come in from the wilderness.

Lush‐Botanist sent her a message.

·Our messengers are underway|·Our local monitors believe‒83% you have arrived undetected

She did not need to explain further. Ryouko already knew the plan: Peace‐cultivating and the two other members of the ship's crew had spent the past week entering biological suspension, allowing their implants and nanites to painstakingly trace out their neural connections. Even for the Cephalopods, consciousness uploading was an expensive, time‐consuming process, but now came the payoff: they would be beamed immediately back to their Tentacle's core worlds, arriving in advance of the ship itself.

It would have normally been enough to send a simple communique, but for a message of such importance, where full pref‐spec‐verification would be called for, this was the best way.

They would have sent Ryouko that way if they could have, but she was both the wrong species and bound to a soul gem.

Not that Ryouko would have welcomed the process; even Peace‐cultivating broaching the idea hypothetically had unnerved her. She knew, though, that the idea she and Clarisse could permanently die, without backup, dissatisfied the aliens' preferences as well.

She hadn't tried to explain the concept of the Goddess to them.

There were other worries that weighed on her mind. None of them were entirely sure that she had eluded Thinker‐Preserving's scans, and no matter how much the ship vouchsafed that an attack was impossible here, she couldn't help but be paranoid.

There was at least little time left to be worried. From here it wasn't far to one of /Ahimsa‐extending's core population centers, Water Circle, near the galactic core. By wormhole, it was only one jump away, though it still required them to transit to and from a nearby black hole, a process that would take about a day.

She spent much of that day in her room with Clarisse, pouring over the new alien records she had access to, now that they were entering friendlier territory. Her access was still… cordially restricted, but just the little peek into /Ahimsa‐extending's operations might have been enough to send Governance into conniptions—it clearly implied that /Ahimsa‐extending alone had far more than enough resources to overrun all of Human space, if they fully mobilized.

In a way, that wasn't surprising, but Clarisse had spent the past week impressing upon Ryouko that they would be the first humans to ever have access to this information and how it was incumbent on them to, as she put it, process it as thoroughly as possible, along with consulting Governance's First Contact and contingency guidelines.

But in the end, there really wasn't very much to surmise that wasn't immediately obvious, and that Governance hadn't already feared. It was seemingly impossible for Humanity to overcome the Thinkers militarily. One hope, perhaps the only hope, was to convince the aliens to end the war.

It was a thought that caused Ryouko's hair to rise into the air. Neither she nor Clarisse wanted that kind of responsibility.

The final hours of the flight were spent reviewing with Lush‐Botanist exactly what Ryouko would be in store for. The senior leadership of /Ahimsa‐extending would gather at Water Circle, where there would be facilities to house all the necessary computation, and then they would interview her—or, more frankly, interrogate her.

But she was able to push those thoughts out of her mind, as they drew close to "Water Circle". It wasn't a planet, or even a few habitats, but tens of thousands of them, a whole ring, countless rotating cylinders orbiting tightly around the parent red dwarf, each the size of a battlecruiser, each with a unique, fully‐managed ecosystem.

Seen by eye, it looked like an illusion, a halo of shimmering dots in the sky. Hence the name, she supposed.

She spent the last minutes of their approach in virtuality, watching as they pulled into the system. She found her feelings difficult to parse: the feats of alien engineering were immense, and she felt a certain amount of awe—but it was almost like it wasn't enough, like her consciousness wasn't expansive enough to grasp all she should be impressed by. It was too big to appreciate.

The individual habitat they approached, named Far Sanctuary, was impressive in its own right, though perhaps no more so than the average battlecruiser. It was ten kilometers in both length and diameter, with two layers that spun in opposite directions, a design Governance itself had used for some of its habitats—though Ryouko had never seen one herself.

This one had apparently been chosen for its broad similarity to Ryouko's own life support preferences, with fauna she would be comfortable with. It was also one of the few with the facilities to support an instantiation of the Tentacle's administration.

By the time they were cleared to disembark, she was already waiting by the airlock, her scant personal belongings—her combat suit, Homura's container of grief cubes—packed onto a nearby drone. Feathered‐Defender walked in circles at her side, with all the excitement of a toddler out for an excursion.

She made her way through the airlock, which shimmered with forcefields in a casual display of superior technology.

She was met at the other side by none other than Lush‐Botanist, now re‐embodied in an organic body, extending her tentacles wide. Ryouko couldn't help but notice the metallic ornaments on the sides of the head.

·This is not a true body transfer, but merely the active extension of my current self—true transfer would be time‐consuming, inconvenient, and unnecessary|ৡ·Welcome

She didn't have much time to muse on what it might be like to control two bodies at once, as they stepped out into the receiving yard. She blinked, distracted by the light of a sky she hadn't seen in what felt like years—cerulean blue, with a piercing yellow source of light.

Simulated of course, but enough to trigger a wave of nostalgia that contrasted sharply with the crowd gathered nearby—spikes of telepathy supplied her with the missing details, revealing that it was mostly curious locals, mixed in with a few coincidental passerby.

Counterintuitively, this did not present a significant added security risk. The Thinkers here were central members of /Ahimsa‐extending, and they naturally preferred to respect certain rules regarding intra‐tentacle secrets.

Feathered‐Defender ran forward, mingling happily with a crowd of fellow, local "penguins" with a chorus of squawks. She couldn't help but smile, and then she noticed an unusual alien approaching her.

By now, she had grown used to the bodies she had seen aboard Lush‐Botanist, and she was of course very familiar with the assorted combat versions she had killed so many of, but this one towered over her, nearly half‐again as large as Lush‐Botanist, with proportions to match—and two extra pairs of arms.

1fsNc5B⊃Survival‐Optimizer; Administrator‐Specialist her empathy‐organ whispered to her.

Ryouko openly gawked, knowing that the aliens could not take offense.

μ·The additional volume provides space for extra local compute|v·I reside within Water Circle, and wished to know you and Clarisse⊃? myself|?μ+·Am I correct in interpreting your behavior as curiosity

They exchanged pref‐specs, a process that still sent her head spinning, even with Clarisse offloading some of the information. It was difficult to take in all at once, without the parallelized implant clusters the aliens had.

In the end, Survival‐Optimizer wasn't markedly different from the aliens she had already met. There was a much stronger preference for staying in one place and thinking, a focus on protecting the lifeforms under /Ahimsa‐extending's care, and an unusual interest in administrative work and large‐scale system optimization.

It was exactly the kind of thing you'd want from one of the Tentacle's senior administrators, the small but rotating group of individuals that ran /Ahimsa‐extending's affairs, spending most of their time uploaded to computing clusters. Sort of like Governance, viewed through a very distorted mirror. With more tentacles.

She looked at the giant alien with new understanding. She could imagine that body carrying a full supercomputer, and a high‐bandwidth transceiver, and cooling systems.

In fact, in infrared, Survival‐Optimizer looked very unusual.

μ·Humans very rarely modify our bodies to that extent||μ·Yes Ryouko thought, finally.

μ·We have forwarded all she has explained about their customs|| Lush‐Botanist commented.

Survival‐Optimizer thought at the same time:

μ·Curious; I would expect a civilization under no preference restrictions to result in much more body diversity than we have||ξ·Perhaps this has driven them towards the morally‐regrettable practice of creating sapient beings to perform tasks their bodies are unsuited for

All of the difficulties of multithreaded communication were amplified with multiple individuals involved, and Ryouko was still untangling that when Survival‐Optimizer continued:

μ∈!·Yet the capabilities of her body are far beyond what biology and even physics could suggest—your shipboard measurements ≈ abstruse equations‐characterizing‐FTL‐temporal‐consistency|μ∈?·How can a body beyond even an augmented warform be so short and thin|ο?·Is their technology yet unknowable to you, Lush‐Botanist

One of the alien's two eyes watched Ryouko as they said this—a meaningful piece of body language even for the Cephalopods. Indeed, this was the first she had heard of any "measurements".

Lush‐Botanist responded:

μ·Even more abstruse, I argue, though I know 3n79lRl⊃Universe‐grasping's perplexity better now|μο∪·Low‐grade reality‐distortion, as you predicted|ο∪·In its technical workings, yes, but we are learning about its role in Human life—for example, we have surmised‒73% that Shizuki Ryouko⊃? and Clarisse⊃? currently require reality‐warping to survive

It didn't take a detailed understanding of Cephalopods for Ryouko to realize they were talking around her. What was interesting was that they were doing it in front of her—did they think she didn't care? Or did it just not matter?

||ο·Ill tidings for peace

There was a brief telepathic silence.

·There will be time to consider such matters at length soon—as there is no immediate urgency, Shizuki Ryouko⊃? and Clarisse⊃? may as well take some time to adapt to their new surroundings|ৡ·We will meet again in one local‐day

It folded all of its arms in front of it in the gesture of farewell, then turned and ambled away with a slight rumbling.

Lush‐Botanist turned to Ryouko.

μ·Survival‐Optimizer strongly opposed accepting Akemi Homura⊃Divine‐seeking's request to retrieve you|ν·In the meeting tomorrow, do not be afraid to speak—administrator‐specialists are garrulous and can manage many simultaneous threads

With that disturbing tidbit of Thinker politics imparted, they started heading towards a waiting tramcar. Some of the nearby crowd realized that their conversation was over and started sending her and Clarisse greetings and empathize‐open requests. She returned tentative replies to all of it, including passing along some messages from Clarisse, though she declined to read anyone else's pref‐spec—it was too mentally taxing, and she had yet to figure out how to avoid running the full comprehension process. She would have to ask about that later.

To her surprise, Feathered‐Defender didn't rejoin them. Instead, she spotted the creature swimming with other penguins in a nearby pond, calling shrilly.

Then she saw the other animals around the pond and Clarisse poked her mentally, so that she turned and stopped dead in her tracks. There, at what had been the edges of her peripheral vision, was unmistakably a giraffe, just making its way through the tall grass. She was confident no amount of convergent evolution could reproduce all those details.

·This habitat is populated by species from the Milky Way, collected by Consensus/Thinker‐Preserving—part of our agreement with them specifies that they bring back whatever specimens they can, particularly if the species is in serious danger from combat operations|·This creature is popular, but unfortunately lonely—we were told it was recovered from a Human preserve, but that its companions had perished

Now that she looked around, she could plausibly identify several of the grass species, and a squirrel‐like rodent that skittered by. Not as definitely as the giraffe, but all were from colony worlds that had fallen to the aliens.

It was a disorienting revelation, and she had to pull herself away from the giraffe, lurching towards the tram, which started moving after she seated herself aboard.

At first, the inside of the tram frankly wouldn't have looked out of place on a human colony, if perhaps a bit too round, and with a profusion of support poles. Next to her, Lush‐Botanist wrapped her arms around two support poles.

Then the walls of the tram shimmered and what had been simple windows seemed to expand outward, until she could see everything in mesmerizing panorama.

The landscape looked more natural than artificial, with the grasses near the tram stretching into deciduous forest behind, curving back into the cylinder overhead. As she looked, telepathic machines fed her location data, revealing a handful of residences and other facilities hidden in the landscape.

The spectacle was mind‐bending. Two and four‐winged birds swirled in the air above her, soaring freely between all angles of the cylinder. All manners of animals wandered through the grass, most visible only in infrared, but she saw a few star‐pronged deer browsing at the edges, accompanied by a great orange sloth sniffing the air, slightly smaller than an infantry exosuit. Wasn't that…?

Yes, Clarisse thought. It's a predator. Very unusual to see them standing together like this.

She thought about that, then asked Lush‐Botanist.

∪·This is a managed ecosystem|∪·We wish to maintain species, but not unnecessary suffering|∪·We have done what we can to obviate predation and manage population

To Ryouko that was a strange idea, though she supposed humans had themselves suppressed the instinct of pet cats to hunt birds. But those were pets, and they still hunted mice.

She was still turning that thought over in her mind when the sloth stood up and bellowed, a puff of… something yellow rising from its back. A Cephalopod appeared out of the grass behind it, looking for all the world like a tourist.

They pulled into their arrival stop a few seconds later, still in view of the tableau.

When she had imagined an alien space colony, she had imagined holograms and machinery and metamaterials, all arrayed towards some industrial or military purpose. She hadn't imagined striding down a dirt path near a braying sloth, the breeze sifting the crown feathers of an array of green birds peering down at her.

Perhaps she should have, she realized. It was as much a demonstration of technological mastery as the holograms would have been.

They traced their way around the edge of a small hillock, and a residence tower came into view, sand‐white and carved into a spiral around the hill. Circular doorways opened onto tenuous grey ramps downward, seemingly without regard for efficiency or even safety; there were no railings.

Her own room was right at the bottom, and the door that slid open led to a set of accommodations that were broadly similar to those on board the ship.

There had been a few adjustments, though. The room was noticeably cooler and less humid than the surroundings, the chairs were smaller and flatter, and there were no tentacle poles. There was also a small table on the side, complete with visualization platform. It was difficult to tell which changes were intended for her.

Lush‐Botanist drew her attention.

μ·I will be available if you need me, but for now I will place this body in storage|ν·You may explore this entire habitat without restriction, but /Ahimsa‐extending encourages you to rest and maintain your neural structures before the upcoming discussion|ν+·Feathered‐Defender will be staying at a nearby rookery, and welcomes your company|μ+·Do you have any immediate requests?

—and Peace‐cultivating and the others from the ship were busy consulting with the Tentacle, as she well knew.

|||μ·I'm alright, thanks, she thought.

The alien made the gesture of farewell, and the door closed behind her.

Ryouko sat next to the window and wondered what to do now. Resting was reasonable but, well…

She looked outside, at a pair of float‐frogs lounging in a pool of water.

She supposed it wouldn't hurt to gather a few memories for Asami.


As promised, by the next day, the Administrators of /Ahimsa‐extending had gathered on‐station, ready for Ryouko to meet with them.

In the interim, there had been time for her to take in the sights—including the artificial night, with its projected views of the depths of space—as well as review what she could about Tentacle government. As might be expected, governance systems varied drastically by Tentacle, but the members of /Ahimsa‐extending cared relatively little about politics, preferring to indulge privately in nature‐adjacent hobbies. Hence, they were content to leave administration to the administrator‐specialists, the few individuals born with an inclination to the role, who then self‐modified even further.

The administrators had no particular need to meet physically, or to even be embodied. However, /Ahimsa‐extending members carried a meaningful preference for physical interaction, even if there was no great purpose to it.

Ryouko had to wonder: what, in the end, distinguished this from the human need for companionship and contact? Why was this not an emotion?

When it was time to leave, Peace‐cultivating met her at her door, guiding her to the meeting site. It was a small, but unexpected gesture, so she asked the alien about it as they stepped onto the waiting tramcar, no different from any other she had ridden the day before. The answer was embarrassingly simple: they had known from her pref‐spec that it would make her feel better, and /Ahimsa‐extending considered harmonizing with the preferences of other sentient life to be their most important trait.

For a short while afterward, she looked out over the grasslands of the habitat, charmed by a flock of small birds that flew along with the tram.

As they entered the forested half of the habitat, the milieu changed considerably. Where there had been grass and sunlight there were now only trees, growing denser as they went, branches reaching right up to the vehicle itself, but turning away, as if dissuaded by some invisible force.

The meeting site was nestled deep within, in a section of the map covered in water, labeled "waste reprocessing area". It was easy to wonder why they would meet in a place like that, but she was quickly preoccupied with the changing scenery. The ground grew soggy and the humidity climbed sharply, as the species of trees began to change. The branches moved higher and higher, the trunks growing thicker and thicker, until Ryouko had to crane her neck to see the tops. By then the trunks were meters across.

Then the tracks entered water, dark and brackish, and the hulking tree trunks branched into wide, ground‐tapping roots, and she realized that these weren't quite Earth trees—Earth had trees of this size, but none that grew in water. Perhaps Asami would recognize them.

The ground didn't entirely disappear. Instead, the water became shot through with suggestions of roots, the air above foaming slightly and warm. Something about it unsettled her, and as she took a more careful look, whispers in the back of her mind suggested the answer. The roots were not entirely natural; they called it nurture‐wood, and in other spectrums she could see glimmers in the water of what looked like data cable, nanite slush, storage crystal…

When the doors slid open, a rush of wet air greeted her, smelling of algae and plant, yet not as… pungent as she expected. Standing up, she found a bare rock platform in the water, shot through with faint blue storage crystal and barely two meters across. On the other side a small metal dinghy waited for her, lacking any visible means of propulsion.

As she stepped aboard, the boat barely even budging, she took the opportunity to put her hand on one of the tree trunks, nearly three times as wide as her boat. It was slimy to the touch, and cool, but she could feel the slight vibration of something moving underneath.

To her surprise, Peace‐cultivating stepped directly into the water, his robes reacting to the water contact by shrinking and clinging to his lower limbs like a wet suit. His metal ornaments glinted underwater.

·We are suited to the water|·You may remain in the boat he thought, and demonstrated by gliding along smoothly with her boat, which was now being pushed along by an anomalous current in the water, leading her slowly towards a particularly dense and dark group of trees.

No, not just dark—they wove together in front of her, forming a cylinder that stretched upward to the invisible sky, far beyond all the other trees, and between the narrow gaps she could see total black, in every spectrum.

But below, in the roots, there was a gap in the wood, just as black, and as they drew nearer, she couldn't help but brace herself. It felt as if she were stepping into a void, even if the telepathic messages insisted it was only a "privacy field".

The other side left her blinking in confusion, with the smell of salt in her nostrils.

The ground was submerged in water, swirling silently underneath the faintly glowing walls. Here, the water was warm with an unknown chemical process, occasionally shimmering as it caught the light.

The walls were themselves supposedly more nurture‐wood, though now it looked more like smooth rock. Large symbols shone through on those walls, twice as tall as she was, phosphorescent, blue and green and yellow. Translations were provided to her from the old Thinker logographic script. The most important glowed through the water in front of her, ghostly‐white. It said: Here we meet; here we optimize for the good of all.

And when she looked up, she could see the walls blackening up into the distance, until she could not see the end.

The Thinkers arrayed themselves in circles, standing silently with arm‐limbs tucked in ornamented robes. The half‐dozen Administrators were the inner circle, giants as tall as the symbols on the walls, bulbous protrusions on the backs of their heads attached to hanging vines, though she could see no port. Other, smaller Thinkers formed an outer circle—Peace‐cultivating separated from her and joined them.

As her dinghy arrived in the middle, she nearly startled at a scrabbling motion, and what looked like several small lobsters moved out from underneath her, glassy eyes bulging out of the water, glowing faint green.

She could see them scanning her on several parts of the EM spectrum, before they sidled away back into the water, single‐file.

She couldn't help but feel out of place. She and her boat were clearly incongruous within the crowd of large and even larger aliens, all of whom had turned to look at her.

Then she was assailed by empathize‐open exchange requests, and it was all she could do to keep herself from being overwhelmed by the computational load. She could have simply skipped empathize‐opening with some of the aliens, but then what kind of representative of Humanity would she be? She couldn't turn down the free chance to understand all her questioners.

As the torrent of telepathy subsided, she noticed a sense of anticipation—they were waiting for her to finish processing. Was she being slow?

That thought only made her anxious, and she resisted the temptation to hide her face in embarrassment. She had nothing to be ashamed of, she told herself.

Survival‐Optimizer motioned to speak, raising the two outermost tendrils of his mouth in the traditional gesture. It struck Ryouko as an uncannily human touch, among all the surrealness.

·Let us begin|μ·I will not dispute Shizuki Ryouko⊃?'s sincerity with regard to her key assertions, though there remains room for both strategic deception and reality‐distortion|ξ·Our updated models strongly suggest‒88% that we and the Consensus have been complicit in the mass extermination of sapients—that we have failed in our goals|ν·Our updated models suggest‒43% a breach of Consensus, with exponentially unpredictable and negative possibilities—action must be taken to determine the truth, and we must alert our allies|μ+·Deception which, in most predicted scenarios, would be understandable given her species' circumstances

Another administrator, FTuNStB⊃Species‐harmonizer, immediately replied:

||ξ·The potential truth of our complicity is painful to contemplate—reciprocity demands that we exact a punishing price|ν·Gathering verified information about the Humans and /Thinker‐preserving will be critical, but it will be difficult to send further agents into the Milky Way without allied help—/Thinker‐preserving allocates much more to intelligence than we do|ο·Public accusation may be useful but may provoke dangerous response, should only be done when no other option

A third administrator, T17SlU2⊃Thousand‐blooms, added to the chorus:

||ξ·Reciprocity may not be an important concern, relative to concrete matters, and the survival of sapients|ν+·Allied help should be sought without hesitation|ν·We should bring the matter to Consensus/Comprehending, Consensus/Truth‐seeking, and Consensus/Star‐faring|ο·We should not be so hasty in dismissing the value of accusation: we can confront them with only minor issues, and monitor their responses ≈ release the prey to catch the predator

A ripple of disagreement passed through the network, with several of the administrators making gestures of dismissal, using a forelimb to pantomime slapping something away.

Yet another administrator, 1NbCb9W⊃Cooperator, spoke:

νοৡ!·These suggestions do not go far enough|μ+·We must treat this matter with overriding urgency, given the costs to Ryouko's species, and to ourselves|ξ·We should also inform Consensus Core of our suspicions directly, perhaps without revealing the source of our information|ν+·Thus, we should consult with our allies on more than just intelligence, and prepare an armed response for all future outcomes|ξ+·In strange times, it is valuable for all trustworthy actors to have as much information as possible ≈ the left tentacles align with the right

Ryouko was beginning to lose track of the varying conversation threads, even with Clarisse helping, packaging the information into temporally distinct chunks as best she could. All the administrators spoke at once, discussing every topic simultaneously, sometimes in ways that intersected each other, and Ryouko quickly found a sense of paralysis wash over her, her eyes darting over the administrators and the other attendees, who seemed to be mostly an audience.

She took a stabilizing breath, and decided: rather than try to consider it all at once—including the numerous threads discussing detailed Tentacle diplomacy, espionage, and other reactions—she would focus on the narrow topics that involved her. Cooperator's proposal to inform the Consensus Core quickly gained steam, with those in attendance averring that if they could get the other Tentacles to join them, the unprecedented nature of multiple Tentacles making an accusation would be sufficient to gain credibility—but convincing the other Tentacles to take such a large step would require showing Ryouko and Clarisse to them. And at that point was there any reason not to show them to Consensus Core? It would be admitting to some technical violations of /Thinker‐Preserving's mandate to conduct the war, but did anyone really care about such things under the circumstances?

It seemed Lush‐Botanist had been right—they would indeed be brought before Consensus proper.

ξ·We will be willing to meet with any party you need us to, if it's a matter of proving our sincerity|ξ+·As long as our safety is assured, Ryouko thought, when she had girded herself enough to say something. ξ·As you know, it is a matter of our species' survival—self‐interested though it is, I must implore you to exert all efforts to stop /Thinker‐Preserving's genocide|ξ+·Your resources far exceed ours

She and Clarisse had been given plenty of time to reflect on what they had seen, and the sheer magnitude of the Cephalopod diaspora. As Clarisse had put it, bringing even a single Tentacle unambiguously to "their side" would be an incredible coup—a chance at several, or the Consensus Core itself, was something they had to grab with both hands. This was, quite possibly, the most important thing she would ever do, and she found herself shivering with the effort of containing her emotion. If they were monitoring her physiology, as she was sure they were, they would doubtlessly notice.

It was strange; battle was easier for her than this. Was this how combat felt for Asami?

The response from Survival‐Optimizer came in a moment:

ξ·Your offer is appreciated, both of you, but we must exercise caution|ξ+·Reality‐warping technology or not, you can empathize‐open our pref‐specs, and know how highly we would prioritize saving your species, as we have saved so many others|μ?ᅡᄋWe do not have a grasp of your or your species' reality‐warping technology, nor have you been willing to share—you present a risk to both us and our allies, one that is very difficult to model

It felt a bit patronizing, perhaps, to hear one's species treated like another exotic animal to rescue, but Ryouko had seen /Ahimsa‐extending's resources, even devoted only to peace. This was not the time for pride, and the response was as positive as she could have expected from Survival‐Optimizer—but she had to address the topic of reality‐warping.

Activity on the other topics slowed, and a sense of anticipation in the telepathic side‐channels made clear that the group was listening carefully for what she had to say. Even some of the non‐administrators turned their eyes towards her—including, of course, Peace‐cultivating.

She clenched her hands for a moment, then focused herself, remembering the answer she and Clarisse had rehearsed for this exact kind of question.

ξ·We understand that some information must be provided to facilitate trust||μ·We are unsure how much information I can truly share, since my species' social structures do not have the predictability of yours, and we have been given no guidance, so we can only exercise our own judgment|π∈·This is not a technology, but rather something that has been with us since we first gained sapience|π+∈·We have used it without really understanding it|π+∈·It seems to have some connection to sapience and to emotions, and to what you would call instability in pref‐specs

It was difficult to miss the telepathic stir this caused, with several of the administrators even making physical gestures of surprise. Ryouko held her figurative breath, asking Clarisse to keep her body language muted. She had made a rather glaring omission, but she simply couldn't tell them about the Incubators. She doubted the Thinkers wanted to hear about a third alien species that claimed to be universal in scope, and she knew they didn't want to have their memories wiped by Kyubey after being told about it.

But would they notice the omission? Were they capable of proving her wrong?

Survival‐Optimizer was again the one to respond to her:

||μ·I hope in time our two species may build enough trust to share all such information safely|π!·That is an extraordinary set of claims|π+·What you say is not impossible, but would be very surprising—though our understanding of the principles involved here, and their connection to sapience, is very limited|π+∪·We have already forsworn careless usage of this technology, precisely because it distorts physical laws and damages mathematical guarantees|π+∪·Such a system can only destroy all predictability, endangering not only Consensus but the universe itself|π+?·Could your species stop using reality‐distortion technology if asked

That was a driving question, one that Ryouko and Clarisse had both wished they could avoid. The Cephalopods had, ostensibly, started the war to stop Humanity from "reality‐warping", but it wasn't clear if Humanity could. The demons were a real threat, one that magical girls supposedly existed to face, but it was clear the Cephalopods had no such problem—she had yet to detect any hint of miasma here. Moreover, the only way Ryouko and Clarisse could possibly imagine to eliminate magic was to remove human emotion, and all existing magical girls.

The Incubators would never allow that, of course.

μ·I must warn you of something else, then|μ+·I believe based on my last combat experience near /Thinker‐Preserving's pulsar mines that they have identified me individually, or at least my reality‐warping powers|μ+·They may use this to undermine trust, claiming I am a known and potent threat using my reality‐warping powers to mislead or corrupt you|||||π·We know of no way to do so

A loaded set of statements: the former they felt she would have to confess at some point, and the latter was… at least approximately true.

Cooperator commented:

ξ∪·In your presence, no argument is logically complete, a crisis of facts|ξ+·Even now, our instruments detect low‐level physical irregularities|ξ∪·No solution converges absolutely when viewed from the outside|ν+·Only direct demonstration to other Tentacles will convince|π·We will leave this topic for now, but will request scientific study of your powers|π+·Consensus/Comprehending will be the best equipped

Ryouko neglected the threads about scientific study, which would be interpreted as not wanting to commit—which was true. She admitted being curious what the aliens would find, but the prospect of being an alien lab specimen made her nervous, at best—and Clarise made sure not to hide her physiological reaction.

To her relief, no one pressed her on the matter, instead focusing on the other topic, which she did not yet fully understand. Fortunately, the discussion clarified: in the presence of reality‐distortion and with so limited information, anything was theoretically possible, including Ryouko maliciously altering everyone in her vicinity. Given their safeguards—which they did not elaborate to her—it was unlikely, and they were willing to take a minute risk, even to the point of meeting her in person—but that might not extend to all factions and observers.

It was a head‐spinning way of looking at things, but something she could grasp, and she couldn't even say they were wrong—if Clarisse van Rossum were here instead of her, who knew what she could do?

When one of them asked what exactly Ryouko's reality‐warping powers were, and what /Thinker‐preserving would accuse her of, she was forced to admit her role at Orpheus, and in the destruction of the pulsar mines.

Survival‐Optimizer commented:

μ!·A truly unexpected level of power|μ+∈?·You said you forced the fleet back through the wormhole—into a local star or singularity|μ+∈·We were told the fleet was destroyed

Ryouko thought back to, and Clarisse played back, her memories of the incident. She remembered perceiving the ships, still clearly intact, on the other side of the wormhole, even after she was done, even as the wave of exhaustion had washed over her.

|μ·I did not destroy them|μ·It is a strange discrepancy

|μ·More mysteries, then|μ·A lie about this could have profound implications—this truth may become a great ally

It was obvious that what she said had again greatly perturbed the aliens, and the tenor of the conversation around her reflected that, filled with discussion of uncertainty and unprecedented and contingencies. For a few minutes she sat there, quietly absorbing the threads around her, fielding a handful of minor questions about her species—no, reality‐warping was not a universal phenotypic trait, yes, as far as she knew, all humans had similarly variable pref‐specs, though Clarisse added that some human‐made AIs might not. And yes, the Human government would welcome peace, particularly with those who knew nothing of the atrocities committed by /Thinker‐Preserving.

She felt some of the tension leave her; these were much easier topics.

In the last case, Ryouko even had a message to relay: Tomoe Mami's message to the aliens, sent during the pulsar mission. There, it had fallen only on deaf ears, but here the beseeching tone, emphasizing the unjust, genocidal nature of the war, served to highlight many of Ryouko's claims, and her own appeal earlier. It also gave her some time to breathe, using Mami's words rather than her own.

Finally, Survival‐Optimizer thought:

μ·We have agreed to dismiss you for now, to avoid wasting your time|μ+·There may be other questions for you later|ξ·It will likely interest you to know that it was I who insisted agents be sent to try to contact, confine, and collect you at the pulsar, as Akemi Homura⊂Divine‐seeking had already given us knowledge of your powers|ξ+·She predicted you would arrive at a certain set of coordinates in deep space after the pulsar detonation, but we were not confident, and it was an opportune chance to test the limits of her predictions of the future|π?·You do not share Divine‐seeking's ability to predict the future, do you

||||π·I do not

Ryouko, not knowing what else to say to that, signaled her boat to leave, sending more lobsters skittering, and took one last look at the pool, with its array of aliens.

Then the boat carried her away.

Her thoughts turned towards a different angle.

She was only here thanks to a series of contrivances, Homura's plots and the efforts of a faction of a faction of the Cephalopods. Soon, Consensus Core would be told she was here, and thereby the enemy would be told too. Would they allow her to return home? Would even /Ahimsa‐extending? Was she marooned, grief cubes dwindling, in another galaxy?

Was that the price of her wish?


Appendix: "A Demographic Overview of Thinker Civilization"

Governance eschatological studies have long expected that thanks to the nature of exponential growth, any encounter with a materially‐superior civilization would be an encounter with a vastly‐superior civilization. Unfortunately for the hopes of military planners, what information I have been given about the Thinker Consensus fails to contradict this notion.

It is necessary to predicate this topic with the caveat that this analysis is based primarily on information I was given by a Thinker Tentacle, stylizing itself as (the rough Standard translation) "/Ahimsa‐extending". However, I have been given little reason to doubt their sincerity, and what Shizuki Ryouko and I have seen is consistent with the information I have provided…

[…]

Thinker population in the Andromeda galaxy is remarkably sparse, two orders of magnitude less than the Governance average per unit area, and thus eight less than even the most conservative estimates of maximal developed population density, in which a hypothesized civilization avoids extensive space habitats, hyperdense planning, or uploading. This observed sparsity is despite the fact that the Thinkers are clearly capable of all of those population practices, and at least some Tentacles willingly adopt them.

This seemingly strange paradox is explicable in light of alien history, society, and galactic context. The Thinkers emerged from a stringent population bottleneck into a Triangulum galaxy devoid of sapient competition, and with a societal structure that encouraged fragmentation and separation. Once it was clear that the galaxy was empty and when FTL technology had been sufficiently developed, the Consensus rapidly moved to divide Triangulum between just over fifty tentacles, each of which had relatively minute populations.

This arrangement has since expanded into the much larger, neighboring Andromeda galaxy, and after the intervening millenia the combined sapient Thinker population is in excess of one trillion, and each of the now hundred‐or‐so Tentacles has an average population only somewhat smaller than Governance, with access to the resources of one percent of a larger galaxy. In comparison, Humanity holds less than one‐thousandth of a percent of the Milky Way.

[…]

Nearly three‐quarters of the Thinker population is disembodied, existing only on electronic servers, with very wide variance between Tentacles. But it is well understood that with sufficient technology, this is irrelevant to ultimate military capacity, which is a function of resource access, industrial development, and computing power.

[…]

Knowing that we are largely facing just one Tentacle, with only some involvement from others and a limited allocation of resources, goes a long way towards explaining the course of the war, without diminishing the daunting scale of the Goliath we face. Yet even with these caveats, our survival thus far is a bit of a surprise…

— Clarisse, Version Two Tactical Computer ( Shizuki Ryouko), excerpt from "Observations on Thinker Civilization".