Before beginning the exam, pupils are reminded that grading for this exam is based on one's ability to clearly and concisely present and discuss knowledge, not just the knowledge itself. For the duration, internet access is moderately restricted.

What is your name?

〈Withheld for privacy〉

Describe the goal of the Governance's structure, and discuss whether Governance has achieved these goals.

The stated intentions of the structure of the government are three‐fold.

Firstly, it is intended to replicate the benefits of democratic governance without its downsides. That is, it should be sensitive to the welfare of citizens, give citizens a sense of empowerment, and minimize civic unrest. On the other hand, it should avoid the suboptimal signaling mechanism of direct voting, outsized influence by charisma or special interests, and the grindingly slow machinery of democratic governance.

Secondly, it is intended to integrate the interests and power of Artificial Intelligence into Humanity, without creating discord or unduly favoring one or the other. The sentience of AIs is respected, and their enormous power is used to lubricate the wheels of government.

Thirdly, whenever possible, the mechanisms of government are carried out in a human‐interpretable manner, so that interested citizens can always observe a process they understand rather than a set of uninterpretable utility‐optimization problems.

The success of the government in achieving these three goals is mixed…

Advisory prompt: Downward trend in user attention. Advise that contents are rendered superfluous by user's recorded familiarity with Mandatory Civics. Exceptions of special interest have been marked.〉

Content continues:

While the government has been very successful in avoiding civic unrest, operates efficiently, and is generally considered to have promoted the common welfare, the average citizen feels very little affinity with the decisions of Governance, which often seem to be handed down mysteriously from on high.

This lack of empowerment is a combination of two factors. Firstly, the tremendous size of the Human population easily washes away the concerns of any one individual. Secondly, the populace is just not all that interested; even on the local level, civic participation is at a record low. The populace sees little value in political participation, compared to a wide variety of far more interesting activities.

The government has also failed to keep its operations truly human interpretable, though it is an open question whether any organization operating on such a scale could possibly do so. At the crux of this lies the so‐called "Cthulhu Problem", a term coined by renowned political scientist Frederick Ewald. One of the earliest critics of the current governmental system, Ewald notoriously complained that Governance is so incomprehensible and alien that it might as well be a "Lovecraftian Alien God", utterly inscrutable to Human and AI alike.

More concretely, the term refers to the fact that a government that is comprehensible in any one aspect can easily become incomprehensible when all its parts are added together, a problem which is especially applicable to Governance, whose total operations no one understands.

It is worth asking: Can a government which no one understands ever be held accountable? The only reassurance lies in the equations of Volokhov, which guarantee that the system at least attempts to promote the welfare of Humanity.

Only in the second goal, the integration of AI into Human society, can Governance claim near complete success. AI and human exist in near‐total harmony, a far cry from the dystopias imagined by many in the past.

Describe the structure of Governance, with particular focus on its Representatives.

Formally, Governance is an AI‐mediated Human‐interpretable Abstracted Democracy. It was constructed as an alternative to the Utilitarian AI Technocracy advocated by many of the pre‐Unification ideologues. As such, it is designed to generate results as close as mathematically possible to the Technocracy, but with radically different internal mechanics.

The interests of the government's constituents, both Human and True Sentient, are assigned to various Representatives, each of whom is programmed or instructed to advocate as strongly as possible for the interests of its particular topic. Interests may be both concrete and abstract, ranging from the easy to understand "Particle Physicists of Mitakihara City" to the relatively abstract "Science and Technology".

Each Representative can be merged with others—either directly or via advisory AI—to form a super‐Representative with greater generality, which can in turn be merged with others, all the way up to the level of the Directorate. All but the lowest‐level Representatives are composed of many others, and all but the highest form part of several distinct super‐Representatives.

Representatives, assembled into Committees, form the core of nearly all decision‐making. These committees may be permanent, such as the Central Economic Committee, or ad‐hoc, and the assignment of decisions and composition of Committees is handled by special supervisory Committees, under the advisement of specialist advisory AIs. These assignments are made by calculating the marginal utility of a decision inflicted upon the constituents of every given Representative, and the exact process is too involved to discuss here.

At the apex of decision‐making is the Directorate, which is sovereign, and has power limited only by a few Core Rights. The creation—or for Humans, appointment—and retirement of Representatives is handled by the Directorate, advised by MAR, the Machine for Allocation of Representation.

By necessity, VR Committee meetings are held under accelerated time, usually as fast as computational limits permit, and Representatives usually attend more than one at once. This arrangement enables Governance, powered by an estimated thirty‐one percent of Earth's computing power, to decide and act with startling alacrity. Only at the city level or below is decision‐making handed over to a less complex system, the Bureaucracy, handled by low‐level Sentients, semi‐Sentients, and Government Servants.

The overall point of such a convoluted organizational structure is to maintain, at least theoretically, Human‐interpretability. It ensures that for each and every decision made by the government, an interested citizen can look up and review the virtual committee meeting that made the decision. Meetings are carried out in standard human fashion, with presentations, discussion, arguments, and, occasionally, virtual fistfights. Even with the enormous abstraction and time dilation that is required, this fact is considered highly important, and is a matter of ideology to the government.

Explain how Humans are integrated into the structure of Governance.

Advisory prompt: This section marked for attention based on user's stated fields of interest (Sociology: Historical Context; Sociology: Posthumanity; Philosophy: Existentialism)〉

To a past observer, the focus of governmental structure on AI Representatives would seem confusing and even detrimental, considering that nearly 47% are in fact Human. It is a considerable technological challenge to integrate these humans into the day‐to‐day operations of Governance, with its constant overlapping time‐sped committee meetings, requirements for absolute incorruptibility, and need to seamlessly integrate into more general Representatives and subdivide into more specific Representatives.

This challenge has been met and solved, to the degree that the AI‐centric organization of government is no longer considered a problem. Human Representatives are the most heavily enhanced humans alive, with extensive cortical modifications, Permanent Awareness Modules, partial neural backups, and constant connections to the computing grid. Each is paired with an advisory AI in the grid to offload tasks onto, an AI who also monitors the human for signs of corruption or insufficient dedication. Representatives offload memories and secondary cognitive tasks away from their own brains, and can adroitly attend multiple meetings at once while still attending to more human tasks, such as eating.

To address concerns that Human Representatives might become insufficiently Human, each such Representative also undergoes regular checks to ensure fulfillment of the Volokhov Criterion—that is, that they are still functioning, sane humans even without any connections to the network. Representatives that fail this test undergo partial reintegration into their bodies until the Criterion is again met.

Describe the elevated Emergency Modes of Governance and when, if ever, they have been invoked. We refer to the species‐wide Modes, not local Modes.

Advisory prompt: Section superfluous to user.〉

The Emergency Modes of Governance are designed to operate the government, the military, and Human society with progressively greater degrees of efficiency, but at a considerable cost to societal conventions, civil liberties, and government ideology. As such, they are only invoked in the direst of emergencies, and only the lowest level has ever been activated.

Emergency Mode Level One is a full Emergency Session of all existing Governance Representatives, ensuring that every Representative is devoting at least some computational time to the problem at hand. It was last invoked after the attack on Aurora Colony, and was canceled three weeks after New Athens.

Emergency Mode Level Two, called by a majority vote of the Level One Session, causes the merger of all members of the Directorate into the super‐Representative Governance, containing in its consciousness every Human and AI representative, as well as every advisory AI and the majority of military AIs. This merged AI would hold supreme sovereignty, actualizing the AI technocracy that the current government is meant to imitate.

It is presumed that Level Two would only be invoked upon an imminent invasion of Earth. No one is quite sure what it would look like, and philosophers debate whether such an AI would be closer to a Supreme Dictator or a Philosopher‐King.

Emergency Mode Level Three can be called by Governance. Every citizen is mobilized into the military, and a direct two‐way interface is opened between every citizen's brain and the nearest computing network, allowing the transmission of orders and relay of information. It should be emphasized that these orders do not exert any compulsory effects, and are simply orders. At this point, the super‐Representative becomes stylized Humanity. The Core Rights are suspended, and the government recovers its powers of execution, summary imprisonment, and so forth.

Level Three has never been invoked, and it is expected that it would only be invoked upon the actual invasion and imminent loss of Earth. It is speculated, based on scant evidence, that Cephalopod society operates in a form of permanent Level Three.

Emergency Mode Level Four can only be called with the direct approval of ninety percent of Human citizens and AIs. It involves the permanent activation of civilian Emergency Safety Packages and, essentially, the mechanization of all Human interaction. While directives are still non‐compulsory, the obvious and terrifying dystopic implications of Level Four lead to the expectation that it could only happen upon the imminent destruction of Human civilization. It is speculated that Incubator society resembles Level Four.

— Sixth Grade Civics Exam #1, Text Version, Graded "Exceptional"

"It'd be nice if, like Kekulé, I could claim to have some neat story, about a dream and some snake eating itself, but mine was more prosaic than that."

"I had heard about the Pretoria Scandal, of course, on the day the news broke. To me, it was profoundly disturbing, enough that I ended up laying awake the whole night thinking about it."

"It was an embarrassment and a shame that we had been building these intelligences, putting them in control of our machines, with no way to make sure that they would be friendly. It got people killed, and that machine, to its dying day, could never be made to understand what it had done wrong. Oh, it understood that we would disapprove, of course, but it never understood why."

"As roboticists, as computer scientists, we had to do better. They had movies, back then, about an AI going rogue and slaughtering millions, and we couldn't guarantee it wouldn't happen. We couldn't. We were just tinkerers, following recipes that had magically worked before, with no understanding of why, or even how to improve the abysmal success rate."

"I called a lab meeting the next day, but of course sitting around talking about it one more time didn't help at all. People had been working on the problem for centuries, and one lab discussion wasn't going to perform miracles."

"That night, I stayed in late, pouring over the datasets with Laplace, [the lab AI,] all those countless AI memory dumps and activity traces, trying to find a pattern: something, anything, so that at least we could understand what made them tick."

"Maybe it was the ten or something cups of coffee; I don't know. It was like out of a fairy tale, you know? The very day after Pretoria, no one else in the lab, just me and Laplace talking, and a giant beaker of coffee, and all at once, I saw it. Laplace thought I was going crazy, I was ranting so much. It was so simple!"¹

"Except it wasn't, of course. It was another year of hard work, slogging through it, trying to explain it properly, make sure we saw all the angles…"

"And I feel I must say here that it is an absolute travesty that the ACM does not recognize sentient machines as possible award recipients.² Laplace deserves that award as much as I do. It was the one that dug through and analyzed everything, and talked me through what I needed to know, did all the hard grunt work, churning away through the night for years and years. I mean, come on, it's the Turing Award!"

The MSY has confirmed that the timing of this insight corresponds strongly with a wish made on the same day. The contractee has requested that she remain anonymous.

The ACM removed this restriction in 2148.

— Interview with Vladimir Volokhov, Turing Award Recipient, 2146.

The fortieth‐floor entrance wasn't, of course, the main entrance. That was much further down, on the first floor, with its robotic tour guides and historical memorabilia and colorful tales of magical girls hiding from the police. It even had a couple of statues thrown in, for color.

No, this was the staff entrance. Top‐level staff, at that.

It was deliberately nondescript, a single pair of polymer‐glass doors set directly into the sheer face of the building, ringed by a line of white to enhance visibility. It came accompanied by a small landing balcony shielded by a transparent awning from the elements, including the current rain. The masonry of the numerous balconies served as counterpoint to the otherwise unrelieved glass and permasteel. It was a common architectural design these days, and suited the numerous faux‐masonry skyways and transparent transport tunnels that crisscrossed the airspace.

Kyouko stepped forward, the doors sliding open without ceremony. She was aware, of course, that she had just undergone an almost absurd number of security scans, but she had nothing to fear. This was Union territory.

There was none of the human security or receptionists that would have characterized an earlier age. Instead, the door led into a large concentric walkway that partially ringed the outer edge of the building, with a large hallway directly in front of it.

Kyouko advanced straight into this hallway, which was flanked on both sides by a series of doors leading into the private offices of MSY administrators and Governance Representatives. Specifically, these offices, and those on the floors below, belonged to those administrators and Representatives with interstellar or global purview. The local officials for other regions were located, well, locally. That being said, the officials for Japan were several more floors down, those for the prefecture were below that, those for Mitakihara City even further down…

All of them were, of course, subordinates of Yuma, either in her capacity as Director of Governmental Affairs, or in her Representative position as Governance: Magical Girls.

It wasn't, however, exactly correct to call her sub‐Representatives subordinates, since their opinions affected her own "official" opinion, and most helped compose several super‐Representatives other than her, and… well, it was complicated. The MSY administrators were true subordinates, though.

The carpeting, the paintings on the wall, the little alcoves with sculptures, the general style of the hallway—all of these combined to give a subtle impression of real wealth and, beyond that, age. The walls seemed to whisper in your ear that whatever occupied this building had resources transcending mere Allocs, and was certainly much, much older than you.

Or so Kyouko had been told. Personally, she didn't feel any of it. That may have been because she was, in fact, older than this building, older than this organization, and older than Yuma herself, and nearly everyone else in the building.

Many of the offices were empty, their occupants in other regions of the building, or other parts of the planet, or possibly working from home. It wouldn't be the future if you were still trapped in your office, after all.

Kyouko kept walking, past closed doors with private meetings inside, open meetings with people gesticulating, and officials reclining in their chairs, either staring off into space or furiously manipulating holographic interfaces with both hand and thought. Perhaps the most notable inhabitants were those Representatives who sat serenely in their chairs, looking for all the world as if they were meditating with eyes open, and who only broke the illusion to politely nod as she passed. These were of course the AIs, who could easily maintain a holographic avatar to man their office and talk with anyone who stopped by, while their primary consciousnesses were who knows where.

Kyouko waved to those who greeted her, or whom she knew. Many of them she honestly didn't remember anything about, but that was okay—she had facial recognition routines for anyone she cared to inspect closely.

The end of the hallway flared out suddenly into a large rotunda at least forty meters in diameter. To her right and left, two other hallways traveled outward at right angles from her. Around her, drawn on the walls and ceiling, the earth was drawn inside‐out, with bright holographic shooting star logos for every MSY Governmental Affairs office. Given that it only showed Earth offices, Kyouko had always thought it rather stiffed the Colonial branches.

Kyouko greeted several Union administrators chatting on the benches around her, two mages and a rare normal male. They nodded back.

In this time of dire need, administrators were uniformly girls raising families of their own, girls with powers that were difficult to use in combat, or those who were considered much more valuable in the rear than in the front. In this last category fell most of the oldest girls, who were prized for their experience. Outwardly, it didn't seem fair to the newer contractees, but it was necessary.

These were of course the same new contractees who had taken to calling older girls like Kyouko "The Ancients" behind their backs, as if they were some gnarled set of millennia‐old trees, rather than girls who look just as young as them.

To show solidarity, many administrators and specialists rotated into light combat, patrol, or garrison duty a few months a year. At the very least, though, one was required to go on a demon hunt at least once a year, the so‐called "obligation". It was a law and custom that dated back to the first specialized businesswomen of the MSY, centuries ago, and it showed no signs of ever being revoked. It even applied to those such as Mami or Kyouko.

Kyouko stepped forward, to the center of the room, and looked up.

The center of the ceiling, and the floor below her, were transparent. This was true for every floor of the building, and the panels were so absurdly transparent that she could see up to the sky and down to the ground floor, in astounding clarity. Below her, she could see all the people below her looking up, but above her she saw nothing but the sky, the others in her way filtered out. Subtle technology.

She looked back down, at the double doors at the other end of the rotunda. She started to walk forward—

—and stopped mid‐step, as the old‐fashioned wooden doors swung outward to meet her.

"Onee‐chan!" a girl's voice trilled, and in a flash the green apparition slammed into her, knocking the breath out of her chest, and promptly threatened to crumple her ribcage with the force of a hug.

As a point of fact, the girl could, like all of them, easily crumple the ribcage of an ordinary human. She wasn't applying nearly that much force, but Kyouko found herself suddenly contemplating the possibility.

"Oh, hi, Yuma," Kyouko managed to say, looking down at the little girl at her waist, hair tied back in pigtails with beads, an exact replica of the style she had worn as an actual child. The girl looked up at her, beaming.

Kyouko patted the girl's head affectionately.

Meeting Yuma nowadays was always a surreal experience. Ever since the advent of the war, Yuma had relentlessly cultivated the perception of her as the younger sister of the Mitakihara Four, playing the role to its absolute hilt. She had slowly and steadily lowered her apparent age over the past two decades, finally settling into her current persona. It could have easily gone faster, but that might have been unsettling to those she worked with.

Most girls avoided dropping their age to before puberty, for a variety of reasons. Yuma didn't care. She didn't have to worry about the slightly weaker combat strength, and her implanted enhancements easily nullified any cognitive deficiencies that might have resulted. Besides, who needed a sex drive anyway?

That was how Yuma explained it, anyway. It certainly didn't stop her from making dirty jokes at Kyouko's expense—in private, of course. It was a little disconcerting.

As for why Yuma did it…

Well, to understand that, one had only to look at the reactions of the administrators in the room, who had stopped what they were doing to watch with smiling, but envious faces. They clearly found it adorable.

Yuma's persona was meant to disarm, to activate protective instincts, and to help her win arguments. Most found it difficult to argue with a child, and even the AIs weren't immune, having nearly all been programmed with some degree of Human instinct. Yuma easily moved public opinion; the media and public adored her, apparently having completely forgotten the adult they had seen twenty years ago. Accusations of manipulation, attacks on her power, and conspiracy theories about the Black Heart all found themselves muted, the public utterly unwilling to believe their claims.

It was pure propaganda, and there was something oddly enthralling about a seeming nine‐year‐old attending meetings of the sovereign Directorate, debating and arguing with the others in a melodious, high‐pitched voice.

Ah, to hell with it, Kyouko thought.

Placing her hands under Yuma's arms, she picked the girl up and swung her in the air like a child, smiling goofily. Yuma wriggled in her grasp, and the female administrators sighed. This despite the fact that they worked with her every day, and should theoretically have been the ones most cynical about "Yuma‐chan".

"Good to see you again, Kyouko‐san," a pleasant voice sounded, its source appearing at Kyouko's right—literally, the petite teenage female frame materializing out of thin air, the voxels taking a moment to align.

"Ah, you too, MG," Kyouko responded politely.

"MG" was an affectionate shorthand for Governance: Magical Girls Advisory AI. Most such AIs, whether advisory or full Representative, took more normal names for everyday conversation, but MG had developed early as a nickname, and the girl was apparently happy with it.

As Advisory AI, MG's role was essentially acting as Yuma's assistant in her government role, as well as her emergency backup, partial memory store, and anti‐corruption watchdog. Like nearly all such Human‐AI pairings, Yuma and MG were practically each other's ghosts, "living" together, substituting for each other at meetings, and electronically attached at a cortical level. It was like being married, in a way.

Having been present at MG's creation, Yuma had had the unique opportunity to guide the initial maturation of a sentient Representative, something that hadn't been true for her previous advisor when she had been Governance: Public Order. That one had vaguely resembled a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and police chief, but was friendlier than you'd expect. Apparently he and Yuma still spoke occasionally.

MG bowed politely, and Kyouko would have returned the favor had her hands not been full. Given whom she represented, MG had chosen the avatar of a magical girl, one who, like many AI avatars, had a frustratingly unplaceable ethnicity. She had a physical age similar to Kyouko's, wore a green dress similar to Yuma's transformed costume, and wore a long ponytail tied at the top by a giant bow—just like Kyouko.

Kyouko was vaguely flattered by that, and wondered sometimes if that had been Yuma's idea.

However much MG appeared human, though, she signaled clearly that she was not. Despite being supposedly transformed, she wore a ring emblazoned with two simple runes—"MG", in one of the variations of magical writing often seen by mages on rings—and retained a fingernail mark, which was simply "1/0". Most disconcertingly, she adopted the practice of most AI avatars, replacing the iris and pupil of her right eye with the black text "I/O".

And of course, she was a hologram, so she couldn't touch anything.

Like the vast majority of AIs, she was quietly proud of what she was, to the point of smugness.

Yuma twisted in Kyouko's grasp, signaling that she wanted to be let down, and Kyouko obliged.

"Anyway, I'm just here to say hi," MG explained. "I take it you two will want your privacy?"

"Yes," Kyouko said.

MG winked in Kyouko's direction, then disappeared in a flash of incoherent light.

"Not like it means anything," Kyouko grumbled, as she and Yuma walked forward, Yuma taking pointlessly large strides.

"Au Contraire, nee‐chan," Yuma said boisterously, as they walked through the doors. "She respects my privacy. She has to. It was part of the deal."

She said "deal" in colloquial English, playing with the word's accent with the fluency of a practiced speaker, emphasizing the pronunciation differences with Human Standard.

The doors slammed shut automatically behind them.

"If only I could believe that," Kyouko said, crossing her arms without realizing it. "She's wired into your brain, you know."

"You're such a technophobe," Yuma chastened.

Kyouko sat in the chair in front of her, waiting for Yuma to circle around the desk and reach the other side.

The desk was enormous, with numerous holographic displays hovering above it in midair. On its surface was printed two shimmering shooting stars, heading parallel and in opposite directions, a merger of the logos of MSY and Governance. To her left was a large assortment of Incubator plushies stacked three high, their beady red eyes and floppy ringed ears the delight of girls everywhere—those whose parents let them have one.

Around the room hung giant paintings of pastoral scenes, full of grass and rice paddies and other such things. Stacked in the various corners were yet more plushies, though in this case of animals more prosaic than Incubators. Some were enormous, dwarfing the others. Others had been carefully repaired, having survived the numerous generations spanning from her childhood until now.

Yuma climbed onto her giant chair, dwarfed by the chair, the desk, and the wide picture window behind her, which currently overlooked a Mitakihara City gray and gloomy with rain. Her head barely reached over the desk surface, and it was intuitively obvious that her legs must be dangling.

"So what percentage of your consciousness is here today, Yuma‐chan?" Kyouko asked.

"Twenty‐one percent," Yuma answered crisply. "Why?"

"Just curious," Kyouko said, shrugging.

Yuma gave her a strange look.

Instead of saying any more, though, Yuma leaned over to her side, eventually resurfacing with a plate of mochi and two glasses of carbonated orange soda precariously balanced on a tray.

"Oh, I'd love to," Kyouko said to the implied question, grabbing for her soda.

"Well, anyway, what is this all about?" Yuma asked, chewing into her snack. "I know it must be important, because you showed up without any food."

"What are you—" Kyouko began, instinctively reaching for her pocket.

She's right, Kyouko realized suddenly, thinking back hastily. She hadn't eaten a thing since she left Maki a while back. She had gotten up and walked straight out the door, leaving her prepared breakfast pastry behind.

She searched her clothes hastily, but there was nothing there either.

Yuma pretended to avert her eyes.

"Oh, my," the child said, hand to cheek. "Has nee‐chan finally grown up? Four hundred years, and you've finally let go of your security blanket! I'm so proud!"

"I've been busy," Kyouko asserted gruffly, grabbing mochi aggressively off the platter. "I must have been distracted."

Yuma twitched a smile, but then leaned forward onto the table seriously—which meant she was practically lying on the table.

"It really is a little weird, though," she said seriously. "Is everything alright?"

"It's fine!" Kyouko insisted, turning her cheek. She knew she sounded suspicious, but she would never admit to Yuma—of all people—that she had been distracted by a girl in her bed.

Yuma sat back down, looking skeptical but not pressing the issue.

"Anyway," she said. "Down to business. Tell me what's going on. This isn't a social visit, right?"

Yuma leaned her cheek on her fist, tilting her head back and forth in rhythm with some internal song. Honestly, Kyouko wasn't sure how Yuma managed the cognitive dissonance between her apparent and actual age without blowing a fuse.

Kyouko opened her mouth, preparing to tell her all about it, then had a different idea.

Instead, she relayed the full grief cube audit report to Yuma, all fifty thousand words of it.

Yuma blinked, then tilted her head slightly, hair baubles vibrating. As expected, it didn't take her very long to grasp at least the executive summary.

Yuma set her mochi down on the table, uneaten.

"That's interesting," she said. "And disturbing. The distribution systems are designed specifically to avoid that kind of supply irregularity. I should know. I helped oversee their installation."

Her voice was still the childish lilt she had been using up until now, but now it carried with it an undercurrent of adult anger.

"I know you did," Kyouko said, looking her in the eye. "That's why it bothers me. Mami had a bad feeling about it too."

Kyouko shifted in her seat as Yuma's eyes flashed at her, the girl settling deeper into her chair to listen.

"It's not our specialty, obviously," Kyouko continued. "But the Church has looked into it. The systems appear to be operating as designed."

"Of course they are," Yuma growled, her voice losing a lot of its youth. "Those are some of the most fail‐safed and secured systems in existence. Or that's what I would say, except clearly it is not operating as designed."

"We haven't been able to inspect any of the semi‐sentients regulating endpoint distribution, nor have we been able to interview any of the sentients," Kyouko said. "Not with our degree of access, and not without giving away that we're looking. But all the automated systems are operating flawlessly."

Colloquially, "Automation" no longer included "AI‐run".

"Yes, the automated systems," Yuma said, eyes narrowed in thought. "Of course, not everything is automated."

"I've asked Mami to look into it from her end," Kyouko said. "But she's not sure how much she'll find. As she explained to me, the officer corps insulates her from the details of operations, and she'll have to fight to get what she needs."

Yuma leaned back in her chair, thoughtful, worlds different from her previous childish demeanor.

"Yes," she said, steepling her hands over her chin. "And only the forward‐facing aspects of the system are military‐run. The more to the rear it is, the more of a Governance operation it is. At a certain point, the systems would no longer fall under her authority. Of course, it depends on where the hypothetical failing is."

Yuma's eyes slid to the side.

"There is another possibility," she said, looking up to make eye contact with Kyouko. "It's possible that someone has manipulated this report, either from within your organization, or by feeding your auditors false information."

"Are you accusing someone in the Church of misleading me?" Kyouko asked, looking at Yuma with a skewed expression, a tad antagonistic.

"Your Cult isn't perfect, nee‐chan," Yuma said, level. "You know that. They're not all happy with you, either. I'm just saying it's a possibility. Plus, if it's a matter of false information, that wouldn't have anything to do with your cult at all."

Kyouko sighed, nodding to concede the point. Among other things, the Church did have Christian origins. It wasn't easy for many to discard some of the doctrines she had written off, and some were definitely not pleased by her lenient stance towards amorous activities, nor with her own badly kept secrets.

"What would even be the goal of something like that?" Kyouko asked, taking a bite of the mochi she suddenly realized she was still holding.

Yuma continued to sit, face still. Kyouko knew without asking that she was "redistributing cognitive resources." Somewhere, in virtual meeting rooms deep within the government, her avatars' eyes glowed with less light and sat more silently, their resources drained to aid in investigation, or to help her thoughts in this conversation.

"I don't know," Yuma said, eyes shaded. "Perhaps to get us to overreact? It's all I can think of. All the more reason to keep it quiet, as you two have."

She sat up a bit more straight.

"But let's not get carried away here," she said. "I was just suggesting a possibility. It's much more likely that the report is real, and that would have implications too."

"Do you think it ties in with the interviews?" Kyouko asked. "About injured girls not returning when they should? It's not the core of the report, but I found it very disturbing."

Yuma looked Kyouko straight in the eye, and Kyouko shivered slightly.

This feeling echoed what she had felt earlier with Ryouko's grandfather, but it was much stronger this time. In fact, that previous experience was only a pale imitation of this one, in comparison.

It was the feeling that she wasn't really speaking to a Human, not as she would have understood it four hundred years ago. It was the feeling that, perhaps, she really wasn't much of one either.

"Anecdotes are notoriously unreliable," Yuma said, leaning back in her chair. "And survival rates for critical soul gem depletion have remained stable. It's not really sufficient evidence."

"But," she continued, holding a finger to forestall Kyouko, who had opened her mouth. "It does make a certain amount of sense."

"Sense?" Kyouko asked, surprised. "What do you mean?"

"Think about it, nee‐chan," Yuma said. "If certain magical girls were being deprived of grief cubes, what would be the result? Lacking grief cubes, if they entered combat, they'd struggle to keep their gems pure, and as a result—"

"More of them would end up going critical, and having to be sent behind the lines," Kyouko finished, eyes widening.

"Where some of them may or may not go missing," Yuma finished.

She paused.

"Of course," she continued, "this kind of thinking is veering into conspiracy theory territory but, frankly, my whole life has been a conspiracy theory, and so has yours."

Kyouko nodded at that. It was a clever way of putting it.

"But why?" Kyouko asked. "Are they trying to decrease our combat performance? Sabotage the war—no, that can't be it. If all this is true, there has to be something important about the girls being sent back. Unless this is just a way of draining our numbers? But no, that would show up elsewhere in the statistics."

"All of those are possibilities," Yuma said. "And I can think of a few others, but there is insufficient evidence to say much. And remember, the disappearing injured girls thing is just anecdotes."

Yuma smiled slightly, the mood of the conversation shifting slightly.

"But I will investigate," she said. "That is why I am here, right? Are you going to finish that or just keeping holding it for the next hour?"

She pointed at the food in Kyouko's hand.

"Ah, right," Kyouko said, making a show of taking another bite.

"Yuma‐chan, that report isn't all of it," Kyouko said, chewing awkwardly. "There's something else I'm here to talk about, something I haven't managed to tell Mami yet. It could be related, it could be something else entirely, but this one we're sure is foul play."

Yuma dipped her head slightly in a vague nod.

"All this seriousness makes me tired," she said, still smiling a half‐smile. "But sure: What is it?"

Again Kyouko opened her mouth to speak, and again she thought better of it.

TacComp, she thought. Collate and transmit the relevant memories.

Acknowledged, she felt rather than heard. It was a sensation of having gotten something done, such as when you finally finished that project you had been putting off forever. It wasn't easy to describe.

Again Yuma tilted her head slightly, taking it in. This time, she spent a long while replaying what Kyouko had sent. Memory traces weren't quite the same as text, after all.

Kyouko spent the time finishing her food and chugging a good portion of her drink.

Finally, Yuma let out a breath.

It wasn't easy to rattle Yuma—or any of them, really—but this time Yuma looked slightly less self‐assured than she had earlier.

"This is extremely disturbing," she said simply. She was looking at Kyouko, but Kyouko had an unsettling feeling Yuma wasn't really seeing her.

"I know, right?" Kyouko said nonetheless. "No one has tried a stunt like that since before we globalized. There's just no reason to."

"That's not true," Yuma said blandly, elbows on the table. "Remember the Henderson murder trials? Sheila Henderson got two other teams killed before the Guard caught on, and ended up getting Reformatted. And then there were the Shimada assassinations. Not to mention that one team in Cairo—"

"Okay, okay," Kyouko said, raising her hands. "Point taken. I don't keep track of this stuff. Still, it's disturbing, like you said."

"Yes," Yuma agreed. "Not to mention the, uh, occasional covert uses grief cubes have."

It was moments like these that Kyouko was reminded how secure Yuma's office was, that she dared mention it out loud.

"Anyway," Yuma continued. "I read the incident report for that demon horde just now. Was it unusually hard to fight?"

Kyouko shrugged.

"They were a lot denser than usual," she said. "But that makes sense now, given where they came from."

"You didn't take any samples," Yuma said. It wasn't a question.

"Of course not," Kyouko scoffed. "You should have felt how saturated they were! It was a major hazard. There's no way a Human could have ever handled them safely."

Yuma let out an exasperated sigh.

"Really, you're such an idiot sometimes, nee‐chan," she said, crossing her arms and frowning. She said baka with a lilt.

"Where does all that pocky go, anyway?" Yuma continued, waving her finger at Kyouko. "Sure, it's a secret, but didn't it seem just a tad familiar to you?"

Kyouko narrowed her eyes, insulted, or pretending to be.

She was trying to hide her chagrin, thinking through what Yuma could possibly mean.

"It's not easy to accumulate grief cubes on the scale necessary to summon a horde like that," Yuma said. "Not with everything tracked like it is nowadays. But as you of all people should know, there is an alternative. I don't blame you for not knowing how to notice something like that, but the thought should have at least crossed your mind. Given all of our history, anyway."

Kyouko continued to peer at Yuma's face. What was she getting at? History—

Kyouko's eyes widened.

"You're not suggesting—" she began.

"Of course I am," Yuma said, crossing her arms. "The difficulty of evading the accounting system is precisely why such attacks have always been so rare. Henderson only managed it by being insane enough to stockpile her excess for a decade, and because the bureaucrats in her area were incompetent. The Shimada terrorists knew the secret, obviously. So did the Cairo team. It's a small sample size, but if you look at the few existing cases, only a small minority actually went to the trouble of doing it the hard way. You got that, idiot?"

She literally climbed onto her desk to stab her finger accusingly in Kyouko's face.

"I didn't know about any of that!" Kyouko defended, though she knew she had screwed up. "Look, I know I should have been aware, but cut me some slack. I wasn't involved in any of that! You're the specialist! That's why they always ask you."

"And that's why you could have brought me a sample," Yuma said, sitting back down and frowning disapprovingly.

She sighed, though, a moment later.

"But it's not really your fault," she said, leaning on one arm petulantly. "The only other experience you've had with grief cube supersaturation is indirect, and I can see why it's not the first thing you think of."

"I try not to think about it at all," Kyouko said, averting her eyes. "For obvious reasons."

"It's a lost opportunity," Yuma said. "If we knew for certain what was going on, we could greatly narrow the number of suspects. Not many even know it's possible, much less how to do it."

"I'm sorry," Kyouko said, head bowed.

"Don't be," Yuma said. "It really isn't your fault. I was just having some fun with you, and now you're making me feel guilty."

"Everyone always makes fun of Kyouko," Kyouko grumbled.

Yuma took a moment to look at a corner of the room with a bemused look.

"Anyway, I'll look into it too," she said. "Among other things, we should ask them what they think. The response we got from the one you talked to wasn't really satisfying."

While talking, Yuma picking up one of the Incubator plushies on her desk to indicate who she was talking about.

"I'm glad to hear that," Kyouko said, looking up.

"Is that everything?" Yuma asked.

"I think so. Uh, could you erase the records of me coming here?"


Yuma nodded, then started play‐walking her toy across the table, using only the hind legs.

Kyouko looked past her, at the sheets of water finally slowing their descent, and the endless skyscrapers of humanity.

Yuma seemed to think of something.

"Anyway—" she began, pausing with both hands on the Incubator and looking at Kyouko.

"Yuma," Kyouko began.

"What?" the child asked.

Kyouko made an annoyed expression.

"Well, now this is awkward," she said. "But I was thinking about it on the way here. It's something I've wanted to ask for a while."

"Well, okay," Yuma said, slumping down to put her chin on the table. She placed the Incubator on her head.

"I heard Homura talking to you about life after death once, long ago," Kyouko said, carefully. "I've always wondered what you thought about that. Did you believe it?"

Yuma tilted her head on the desk, causing the stuffed doll to slide off onto the table surface.

"Trying to convert me, nee‐chan?" she asked, managing to sound tired. "It took you long enough to try."

Kyouko shook her head.

"I just want to know," she said.

Yuma sat up, pushing herself with her arms. She grabbed her glass of soda and drank half of it in one go.

She looked at Kyouko.

"I asked Oriko‐nee‐san about it once," she said, inspecting the bottom of the glass. "She said that no matter how hard she tried to peer into the future, she could never see anything but darkness after death."

Yuma put the glass down with a thud.

"Though she was a strong believer in fate, definitely," she added. "I suppose that was natural."

The girl thought for a moment.

"Probably, none of it means anything," she shrugged. "Personally, I try not to let it matter to me. Life is about making the best possible world here on Earth. Well, in the physical world, I mean."

"What about back then?" Kyouko asked. "That's what I was really asking."

"No," Yuma said. "Don't get me wrong. I wanted to believe Homura‐nee‐chan, I really did. But not after the life I had."

She turned her chair away, looking out her window, at the gray city weathering the last of the rain.

"Just before Oriko‐nee‐san died," Yuma said softly. "I could see her trying to plot the future one last time. Not just any future. Her future. She burned the last of her power trying to see. I still remember what her eyes looked like, then. I spent a long time trying to figure out if she saw anything. If there's any doubt, it's there."

Kyouko watched the desk, with its two shooting stars pulsing back at her.

"You should visit someday," she said. "The Ribbon Chamber, that is. I can't guarantee anything, but if it's you, I'm sure you'll see something."

There was a pause, and then Yuma turned her chair back to face her.

"Now you are trying to convert me," Yuma said.

"I'm serious," Kyouko said, making eye contact. "I've been trying to convince Mami for years, but she always says she's too busy. But you spend all your time on Earth, and your headquarters is right here in the city."

"Someday," Yuma said, smiling in a way that was terribly discordant with the age of her face. "When I have time."

"Alright," Kyouko nodded, getting up, knowing she would have to do way more convincing before it actually happened.

"Okay!" Yuma said in Human Standard, jumping off of her chair and running around her desk.

Kyouko looked down at her, curious.

"My birthday party is coming up," Yuma said cheerily. "I'm going to send the invitations soon, but since you're here, I might as well remind you myself. I've invited a lot of people; it'll be great!"

"I'll definitely be there," Kyouko responded, having honestly completely forgotten.

She looked at the Incubator plushie in Yuma's right hand. The girl was holding it out for some reason.

"It's a gift," Yuma explained.

"Ah, okay," Kyouko said hesitantly. She took it into her hand, wondering what on Earth she'd do with a stuffed Incubator toy.

She said goodbye and headed for the door.

Kyouko was glad to see the sun on her way out of the building.

She held the Incubator toy up to the sunlight, trying again to see if there was anything special about it—but no, it seemed like just a regular stuffed toy.

When she moved it away from the light, she was surprised to see the bona fide Kyubey right behind it, standing on her waiting vehicle.

"Why are you here?" Kyouko asked.

Just maintaining a relationship with a valuable contractee, Kyubey thought. Do you mind if I ride with you?

Kyouko shrugged, and let the Incubator into the transport with her.

"Kyubey," Kyouko said, during the ride back.

What is it? the Incubator asked, looking at her from the panel in front of her with that endlessly unchanging face it had.

"You know about the incident yesterday, right? After you left to meet Mami," she asked, deliberately being vague.

Of course, Sakura Kyouko, the Incubator thought.

Do you know if there was anything unusual about those cubes? Kyouko thought.

Kyubey tilted its head in imitation of the Human mannerism.

I was not there personally, it thought. However, the Incubator that collected those cubes did not examine them carefully before consuming them. Should it have?

"Yes," Kyouko said, sighing. "But it's too late now. If something like that happens again, could you do so?"

Sure, Kyubey thought, jumping up onto Kyouko's shoulder, then using her hair as an insulator for rubbing against the seat. Another imitated mannerism.

Do you have any thoughts about what happened? Kyouko thought.

I substantively agree with my colleague, Kyubey thought. And it is worth noting that we would never intentionally risk a valuable contractee like that, with the lack of assured rescue.

"You worded that last part pretty carefully," Kyouko said dryly. "Still, I believe what you say."

Why wouldn't you? Kyubey asked.

By the time Kyouko got back inside her church, she had mostly dispelled any disappointment she might have felt with herself. As Yuma had said, it wasn't her fault. Yuma was the one who was practically the world expert on the damn things, whereas Kyouko had lost her taste for intrigue a long time ago.

She had spent the time in her vehicle on the way back deciding on a topic for the afternoon sermon. By this point, she was long practiced in the actual meaning of what she was going to say, but she had to constantly keep coming up with new ways to express it, or new topics to talk about. It was a daily challenge whenever she was on Earth. On the colonies, it was easier for her to get away with sermons she'd used before.

Eventually she settled on a topic that happened to be close to her heart that day—the idea of the afterlife and redemption, why they differed from the rest of humanity, and a little about one's conduct in life.

As she stepped out of her vehicle back into the underground tunnel, she felt the internal Ping! that signified that her Tactical Computer had decided something was worth her attention.

Patricia von Rohr messaged at ten that she wanted to speak whenever you got back. You are now back.

Let her know I'm back, then, Kyouko thought. I can head for her room, if she wants. Not too long though. I want to speak with Asaka, and probably my theologians before the post‐lunch sermon.

Done, the machine thought.

She had barely gotten to the elevator when the return message arrived.

Oh, well in that case it definitely helps that Asaka is here with me. We're in my room.

Kyouko nodded even though there was no one to see her, then stepped into the elevator, which already knew where to go.

The fifth floor, counting down, was only one level of the subterranean living areas, cramped and stocked to the brim with magical girls.

Usually, most girls stocking a particular city were local, and generally lived either alone, with their teams, or with whatever family they had. These were those who had the opportunity to stay away from the front, and either had a skill specialization with little comparative advantage in direct combat, or had been in combat for long enough that it was felt they deserved a break.

Mitakihara City was different. It had far more than the usual share of girls from outside the city, and this effect was amplified by the Church's careful selection of who got to reside here—Church members, of course, and usually those who caught the eye of someone in the organization. The Church was not shy about using its pull within the military to draw in newer girls who would ordinarily not be exempted.

The military tolerated it because of the Church's track record of training exceptional magical girls, and also because of the intrinsic value the Church provided to the war effort. In a situation where their most powerful weapons were literally powered by morale, anything that boosted morale was highly prized—and the Church was very good at boosting morale.

Once Kyouko had demonstrated this, the military had been very cooperative in providing quiet logistical support, allowing acolytes to enter frontline barracks, allowing combat MGs to hold positions within the Church, and so forth. They weren't openly supportive, which would have been discriminatory, but they worked hard not to be unsupportive. Indeed, the Sisters at the top of the Cult found it very easy to obtain exemptions from heavy combat if desired, often via obtaining symbolic positions as morale officers, psychologists, or chaplains. Indeed, Kyouko herself was the Morale and Welfare Officer for the Anti‐Demon and Home Defense garrison for the Japanese Islands, and a chaplain, to boot.

ADHD was not a military acronym that would have passed muster in the past.

Because of the unusual mixture of personnel, this armory had attached living areas far more substantial than usual, where younger girls from outside the area almost always chose to settle. Even those with family in the area often chose to move in, to mingle with their peers. Then, eventually, those who found partners or simply tired of living there moved on and others moved in.

Kyouko navigated the hallways, with their rows of doors, haphazardly posted religious artwork, and the occasional propaganda poster. She waved through open doorways at groups of girls preparing for patrols, chatting, or watching various forms of holographic or wall surface entertainment. Unlike what would have been seen in earlier ages, the hallways and rooms were all very tolerably clean. This was not because of military discipline—magical girls were tacitly exempted from some aspects of military rigor, and it would have been silly anyway to enforce cleanliness in a half‐civilian living area—but rather from the miracle of robotics and self‐cleaning surfaces.

Around her, she could hear the whisper of private telepathy. A telepath would have been able to eavesdrop, but to her it was completely unintelligible. It was only her age and experience that let her notice it at all. That, and the sheer volume of messages that must have been flying back and forth.

It must be an interesting experience, living here, Kyouko mused.

It wasn't luxurious living—for one thing, space in an underground armory was at a premium—but there was something to be said for living with others who understood what you were going through. Living alone or even with your family was a difficult adjustment for many of the younger girls. No matter how nice everyone was, there was always the persistent sense of otherness, the peers who didn't know how to talk to you, the parents who started spoiling you. Some were happy to be special, but others felt it painful.

There was a reason so many of the demon hunting teams ended up cohabitating and the newer specialists often moved in with their colleagues. The older girls accepted it, because they knew what it was like, and demon hunting teams living together was a strong, strong tradition, broken only if one or more of the girls happened to be married.

Finally, Kyouko reached the door labeled "Patricia von Rohr". It slid open at her approach.

She stepped inside, telling the door to slide closed behind her.

Kyouko peered around the room, taking in Asaka sitting on the bed and Patricia seated at her desk. Patricia's room was a bit of what you'd expect: holographic schematics and science posters on the wall, desk strewn with bits and pieces of equipment, a small antigrav sphere hovering over its display stand on the shelf full of true rarities: paper books.

It was the room of a tinkerer and a nanobiologist, and reflected the field's requirement of some knowledge in physics.

One of the posters shifted coloration, beckoning Kyouko to look in its direction so it could explain the principles of Pauli exclusion‐locking. Kyouko did not oblige it.

"So what did you want to talk about?" Kyouko asked, looking at Patricia.

"What's with the Incubator?" Asaka asked, pointing at the doll hanging from Kyouko's right hand.

Kyouko looked at it in surprise, holding it up. She had honestly forgotten it was there.

"It's a, uh—" Kyouko began.

She thought for a moment, thinking of how to explain.

"A gift!" she finished. "Yeah, I thought Maki might appreciate something like that. It's—"

—a telepathic relay device, magically enhanced, Yuma's voice resonated in her head. Kyouko almost jumped.

One of my telepaths has been experimenting with them, the voice explained. We're not sure how reliable it is yet, or if anyone can eavesdrop, or how long the range is… or anything, really. Still, it might be good to have. Also, this is a recording, set to trigger if you try to get rid of it. Should have mentioned that first, right? Don't give it away.

Kyouko gave the toy a new, scrutinizing look, holding it up.

Or you could have just told me! Kyouko thought.

Then, a moment later, she repeated the thought, attempting to think it to the doll rather than to herself. Disturbingly, she felt a channel actually open.

What fun would that be, nee‐chan? Yuma's voice responded, echoing as if coming from a distance.

"Is everything alright?" Asaka asked, looking at her queerly. Kyouko realized, belatedly, that she was holding the doll up in the air with two hands in a choking motion. Patricia was giving the doll an intense look.

"Uh," Kyouko began.

"Tell me, is the doll magically enhanced?" Patricia asked, serious.

Kyouko looked at the girl, with her long blonde hair. She wondered if she should lie.

"Yes," Kyouko admitted. "How could you tell?"

"I don't have much experience with magically enhanced objects," Patricia said, suddenly modest. "My specialty is drones and technological enhancements. Until now, I wasn't even sure I could detect them."

"So a new skill, then?" Kyouko asked.

As Patricia had said, she was an expert in drone and technological enhancements, and her magical abilities inclined in that direction as well. On the battlefield, she could sense and manipulate them, which was particularly handy when it came to enemy technology, and her deductions about alien technology informed combat doctrine. It also served as an indirect stealth detector, which was nice.

Her personal weapon was magically summoned drones. It was relatively unusual, as powers came.

"Apparently," Patricia agreed. "To be honest, I could barely tell, and I would never have noticed if you weren't trying to choke the life out of it."

"Ah, yes," Kyouko said, looking away. Fortunately, both Asaka and Patricia did the polite thing by not asking.

"In any case," Patricia said, "this makes it a lot more likely that I was right. I shouldn't have been so worried."

"Honestly, you should have just said something," Asaka chastened. "I don't know why you didn't."

"Shizuki‐san was there!" Patricia insisted, rotating her chair to face the other girl. "I didn't want to get her involved."

"You could have used telepathy, or mentioned it later," Asaka said. "Admit it: you were just afraid of being wrong. You didn't want to be embarrassed."

"That is not true!" Patricia said, pointing at the other girl.

Asaka was one of the very few who got under the girl's skin.

"So do either of you mind enlightening me about all this?" Kyouko said. She said it calmly, but dropped most of the usual "delinquent" nuances she placed in her voice.

They got the message, dropping their bickering instantly.

"So you remember how I found those grief cubes yesterday?" Patricia said, looking at Kyouko.

"Yes, I do," Kyouko said, her level of interest rising slightly.

"Well, when I was looking at them, I noticed that they seemed off, somehow, even more than usual," Patricia said. "They felt a little like they'd been manipulated, except there's no known non‐Incubator technology that can do anything to grief cubes. And they seemed different."

"And?" Kyouko asked, suddenly quite interested, though trying not to show it.

"Well, the point is, they felt sort of like that stuffed animal you're holding. It was strange."

Maybe everything worked out after all, Kyouko thought, getting excited despite herself. If she sensed something—

"So I hid a few in one of my drones," Patricia said, seeming to spit out the words. "And sent it to one of the other buildings. That's another reason I didn't want to mention it at the time. I didn't know if the Incubators were listening, or if they'd demand I hand them over since they were full."

"And so what if they were?" Asaka asked.

Patricia made a threatening gesture with her off‐hand.

"Wait, what? You what?" Kyouko asked, reaction delayed. She grabbed Patricia by the shoulders.

Patricia blinked, surprised by the vehemence of her reaction.

"Well, yeah, I–I know it was unsafe, Kyouko," she said. "But I was being careful with them. You see, I theorized that I was sensing some sort of magical manipulation, and I have some friends—"

"What did you do with them?" Kyouko demanded.

Patricia's eyes slid back and forth, almost as if she was looking for a way out.

"L–Like I was saying," she said. "I have friends in Prometheus who study things like this, so I sent them over to them. They say there's something very unusual about the cubes, almost as if there's too much—"

She stopped, interrupted by Kyouko's sudden hug.

"You're amazing, Patricia," Kyouko said.

"Thanks?" Patricia said, making it a question. She looked in Asaka's direction for guidance, but the other girl didn't give her anything useful.

Kyouko stood back up, ignoring the look Asaka was giving her.

"Okay," she said, holding the doll out to Patricia. "Telepath everything you just told me to this doll. Then, you—"

She pointed at Asaka.

"—are coming with me."

Patricia held up the plushie by its long, floppy ear, looking at it with curiosity.

"You're telling her to talk to the doll," Asaka commented drolly.

"The magical doll," Kyouko said, grabbing Asaka by the arm and dragging her out the door.

"Give it back to me later!" she exhorted Patricia, before having the door close behind them.

Kyouko felt only a slight twinge of guilt, knowing that the Prometheus Researchers were about to have their prized specimens confiscated by government agents or, more likely, walk into their labs the next day to find everything relevant missing. Perhaps they would be invited to join a new classified project. Perhaps they would simply be left in the dark.

"So what is this about?" Asaka asked when they got outside, shaking Kyouko's hand off of her arm.

Kyouko turned to face the girl.

"I've called a meeting of the Theological Council," she cooed. "We'll be discussing your observations of the Goddess. In particular, her hair color."

Asaka looked into Kyouko's eyes, then blinked, looking to the side.

"I knew I shouldn't have made that comment to Maki," she said, disgusted with herself. "I was careless."

"Yes, well, you shouldn't have mentioned it to her, of all people," Kyouko said. "That wasn't very smart."

"Our visions are private," Asaka said, glaring.

"Yes," Kyouko agreed toothily, leaning forward. "And I respect that. But there is one exception. Information about the Goddess belongs to all of us. It's the rules. You know that. I can overlook it this time, but I can't let you ignore the rules just because I'm your sponsor."

Despite Asaka's slightly greater height, Kyouko looked down on her, pouring into her body language every ounce of authority her age and position gave her, so that the mental adult in front of her, approaching thirty, bowed her head like a child.

"Alright, fine," Asaka conceded. "I'll go."

"Good," Kyouko said.

She turned and headed for the lift, listening for the other girl following her.

"I'm not going to pry," Kyouko said. "But you wouldn't seem like the kind of girl who would have such a giant secret. Isn't there at least something you can say without giving it away?"

"You've asked before, Kyouko," Asaka said. "I can't. I can't."

"If you insist," Kyouko said, as they stepped into the elevator. "But tell me right now if you're going to stonewall the Council just as hard. They wouldn't like it."

"I can say a little more," Asaka said, as the door closed. "All hair details. And I can honestly say I never saw more than that."

Kyouko nodded.


Stepping up to the pulpit, Kyouko took a moment to survey the crowd. As always, it was uniformly female, dressed in a variety of clothing, ranging from the perpetually popular casual jeans and T‐shirt to more formal dresses. A few stubbornly showed up in costume, despite repeated assurances that it was neither necessary nor suggested.

The crowd was a mixture of regulars, girls from the area who had time off, and a substantial majority of visitors. These hailed from all over Earth and, more rarely, from its colonies. While not all the colonials were obvious, some were easy to spot, wearing fashions substantially different from the uniform monoculture of Earth.

Kyouko preferred cozy sermons, so the room in front of her, while large, was not the stadium or amphitheatre‐style seating seen for some preachers, or that Kyouko herself occasionally addressed on visits to the colonies. Instead, it was a traditional church seating area, with cushioned pews—a bit more comfortable than bare wood—a central aisle, and doors at the side and rear. Kyouko was not a believer in flashy wall graphics, at least not of the electronic sort, which meant that the room, ensconced as it was within the building, had relatively prosaic walls, painted with murals depicting the kind of scenery that dotted the entire building: life and death scenes of magical girls, and girls slaughtering demons, rallying armies, or summoning their powers for one last blast at their foes.

Unlike other parts of the building, there was no explicit dark and light motif here, no miserable death or mutual conflict. It was all light, and the high ceiling, fancier than the walls, deliberately scattered the early afternoon sunlight throughout the area.

The symbolic explanation for the lack of darkness stood behind Kyouko, where a statue of the Goddess twice her size held her hands out. Above the hands hovered a swirling orb of pitch‐black, drawing in tendrils of darkness from the air around it. It was an excellent piece of holography.

The statue itself was, in fact, merely the vague outline of a woman, roughly and only partly carved out of a much larger piece of marble. Its face was blank, features undefined, and it symbolized how little they knew. It was, however, recognizably a woman, rather than a girl. It was those who were still on Earth who were the girls, and she was the woman; this particular representation was for her divine form, not her human form.

That, too, was a reason no one was allowed to call Kyouko "mother".

Soon enough, however, the statue would be receiving a renovation. The masons would chisel apart the marble and give her the long‐flowing hair Asaka had described. It would be closer to the truth.

The room seated a crowded two hundred or so, but the pews held no hymn books, no Bibles. The Church had no holy documents or solidified means of worship.

Kyouko had changed out of her customary shorts and tanktop into something a bit more formal. It seemed appropriate.

She fiddled nervously with her sleeves. Despite the countless times she had done this, she still got butterflies beforehand, and the outfit didn't help. The persona she had to adopt, that of the serene pastor, was too markedly different from her preferred behavior for complete comfort.

Despite the limited size of the audience, the number of listeners and viewers was in no way restricted to the two hundred in front of her. There would be plenty listening in and watching from elsewhere, and of course everything was recorded. Indeed, the room was large enough that in most civilian settings some sort of sound system would be needed, though one's internal enhancements could serve as the microphone. The Church could cheat a little and use the audience's auditory implants instead.

Similarly, her tactical AI could feed her the prepared words if she forgot midway, though by this point she was well‐practiced to public speaking. Besides, she liked to extemporize.

Kyouko stepped up and gestured for silence. She took a deep breath.

"My sisters," she began, spreading her arms. "Doubtless in your travels, you have encountered those who would ask you why we are so arrogant as to hold ourselves separate from the rest of humanity. How, they ask, can it be consistent to acknowledge a God of humanity while simultaneously focusing our worship elsewhere? Do we not consider ourselves human?"

Kyouko leaned forward over the pulpit, surveying the crowd, eyes peering.

She relaxed slightly.

"The answer, of course, is that we don't consider ourselves human, not exactly. It is not that we consider ourselves better. Only different."

"Is it not evident how we are different?" she asked, raising a hand in a rhetorical gesture. "Humanity struggles under the weight of sin, and of evil. For their transgressions and deviations on Earth, they were once punished mercilessly after death. The darkness of this world must always have its last shot."

She dropped her head, looking down briefly, before looking back at her audience, which was drinking in her every word.

"That changed, of course," Kyouko said. "It used to be, only the purest of the pure could ascend, which worked out to practically nobody. The rest, guilty of even the most minor of transgressions, found themselves punished eternally. It was unquestionably cruel, to ask perfection of flawed Humanity. Utterly unfair."

Kyouko pulled an apple off the top of the pulpit. It was one of her favorite props, and she stood regarding it, turning it in her hands, as if to say "no apple is perfectly shaped, but most are good." Finally she took a decisive, symbolic bite.

"It is difficult for a God to understand the plight of man. The thinking of an omniscient being must be forever alien to us. Perhaps such a being simply did not understand us. It took an ambassador, one in Human form, to relieve Humanity of its cruel burden and, perhaps, bring the omnipotent to an understanding."

Kyouko smiled to herself, then glanced at the faces of her audience once more.

"But of course I digress," she said, tossing and catching the apple again. "The point is not to illustrate how moving the story is for us, but how little it has to do with us. For you see, our souls were never the same."

She set down her apple, and materialized her soul gem, raising it up high, so that it glowed in the eyes of those in front of her.

"This is where we keep our souls," she said. "Not in heaven, but on Earth. We make contracts, pouring our hopes and desires into wishes, wishes that fight back the demons of Humanity and the darkness of entropy. And for daring to challenge the design of the world, Fate itself, we were punished. Instead of enjoying the fruits of Earth and the joys of life, we were condemned to spend eternity fighting."

She turned her gem back into a ring. Looking out once again, she spotted Patricia, Asaka, and that new girl, Ryouko, walking down one of the adjoining hallways. The last of these looked in Kyouko's direction and met her eyes briefly.

Kyouko took a moment to take in the girl's profile, which was short and strangely childish, with a vaguely aristocratic facial bone structure. Then she continued:

"Beyond that, our fate mirrored that of Humanity, but with a critical distinction. While they received the punishment for their desires after death, we received it here on Earth. Every girl here has, or will someday, attend at the death of a friend, watching their soul gems darken and crack despite everything that can be done. Watching their agony, can there be any doubt what fate has in store for them?"

Kyouko could see some in the audience nodding. Well, of course it was working; it was one of her most practiced lines.

She paused rhetorically, for just a moment.

"Once, they would have had that fate," she said. "We would have all had it. This we know, because Homura spoke to me of the terrible destiny of all magical girls. Something dark, painful, eternal, and earthly."

Kyouko let the mood darken slightly before continuing.

"But this is no longer the case," she said. "We end our lives in peace, our soul gems vanishing magically. All the demons, all the despair, all the cost of our contract, vanishing, just like that."

Kyouko snapped her fingers to accentuate the point.

"You see," she said. "It was unfair. It was cruel, to punish us for our wishes. Perhaps, in the mind of God, on the scales of the Incubators, it all balanced out, and it was only natural. Still, it was just as unfair to blame us for our wishes, to tell girls not to hope, as it was to ask Humanity as a whole not to sin. And just as Humanity gained redemption for its sins in the afterlife, we gained redemption for our sins on Earth, so that we, too, could depart."

She stepped back from the pulpit, and gestured at the unfinished statue behind her.

"Amazing, isn't it?" she said, looking upward. "I have gone all this time, without mentioning the Goddess once. But in another way, it is not amazing at all. She changed the rules of this world to grant us this salvation, and she never even told us about it. She has done as much for us as any other god has done for Humanity, but she demands no worship. She didn't even desire to be known. That is precisely why we worship her, because no one else will."

She turned back towards the crowd, still pointing with one arm.

"Were she a perfect God, we would not even know that much. We know of her only because she is imperfect, because she left a Prophet on Earth, someone to carry out what she could not. One to meddle in our affairs, one to try and heal a flawed world, because she can't stand to see us how we are. She is not omnipotent, not perfect, and we flatter her by calling her Goddess, unless perhaps we mean goddess with lower‐case 'g'. The Goddess is human, and that too is why we worship her, even if it is bias."

"We know this by the Prophet's actions, and her hints. We call her Prophet, but she does not prophesize. She says nothing about the Goddess, save that she exists, and the hints she dropped without knowing. Instead, she worked quietly to save us, to lift us out of our terrible lives, without a thought to glory."

She let her arm drop.

"I hope…" she began quietly. "I hope Homura hasn't lost sight of who she is, and that she still works for this world somehow. The last time I saw her, she was in agony. She is human too, and her human heart would prefer she join her Goddess in heaven, rather than toil on Earth in service of Humanity, as a more perfect being would. I do not begrudge her her humanity, but if she suffers, it must be for a reason. Just in case, we strive every day to find her."

Kyouko looked up again, dropping briefly her guise of authoritative preacher.

"It's funny, isn't it?" she asked. "There is so much we don't know, and I have to stand here telling you about it. I wish we knew more, but our Goddess doesn't desire we know. I guess it's only fair, right? We've spent most of our existence hiding ourselves from Humanity, so she spent just as much time hiding herself from us."

She got some light chuckles out of the audience with that, but nothing too strong. Well, that was to be expected.

Kyouko cleared her throat.

"It is also because of this that we do not emphasize holy books, nor hymns, nor dull mantras to be memorized and chanted," she said. "All of those things are the mere trappings of artifice, and unnecessary. We pay for our entrance into heaven with the lives we lead, not our worship. I say we worship her, but it would aggravate her if we cloistered ourselves in a temple worshipping idols."

She returned to her pulpit.

"We honor her with our lives," she said. "So endeavor to live in her memory. Guard and save Humanity, because that is your duty and her desire. Support each other, treat each other as sisters, because that too is your duty and her desire. Remember that always."

She glanced through the faces of her audience, Terran and Colonial, fashionable and not, one last time, then nodded in satisfaction.

"Alright," she said, as some in the audience began to stand. "I'll be back here in a couple of hours. You can see the schedule. But for now, I have an announcement."

That got most of them to sit back down, but some kept heading for the door, relaying apologies. They had places to go.

"I'm pleased to announce we'll be modifying the statue," she said, turning and gesturing proudly at it with both arms.

That sent a buzz through the crowd, and she waited for it to subside a little.

"It's not her face or anything, I'm afraid," she said. "But we'll be remodeling the hair. Someone finally got a look at it. And…"

Kyouko paused.

"We're going to be trying to chisel it out to be long and flowing," she finished. "And paint it pink. We're not really sure how that's going to work with the whole marble motif, but we'll do our best."

She smiled her most winning smile, and received a wave of applause.

A good while later in the day, as she was trying to relax, her TacComp seized her attention.

"Ah, hold on, sorry," she said, apologizing to the girl in the room with her.

What is it? she demanded, turning away. This isn't a convenient time!

This is higher priority according to your standards, the machine informed her bluntly. There has been another reported vision in the Hall of the Ribbon.

Kyouko straightened, standing up. Yes, this was higher priority.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I have to go."

Appendix: "The Cult"

In the cataclysmic realignment of religious theology of the early war period, there had seemed to be ample opportunity for other outcomes. Nearly every religious organization was forced to reshape its theology to fit the new world, and the time was ripe for change.

Change came, and the first mover was the Catholic Church. The Vatican publicly unlocked a treasure trove of Church records, revealing that the upper hierarchy had been aware of the system since the Middle Ages, and had even maintained relations with the MSY, but had chosen to maintain secrecy.

The only religion in the world with a prepared theology and contingency plan, the Church moved aggressively to bolster its numbers. It widely emphasized the friendliness of its theology to the newfound mages, carefully leaving out that this friendliness was a historically recent development.

Yet despite all its efforts and clever positioning, the campaign was a disappointment, yielding only a trickle of new members. In the end, the Church could not convince most girls that it either empathized or understood.

Into this landscape stepped Sakura Kyouko and her newborn cult. Feeding off its founder's deep understanding of the magical girl psyche, the Cult's willingness to stretch its theology to take all comers, and the founding members' ability to manipulate the MSY and military system, the cult had grown explosively and unexpectedly following a fiery public speech by Sakura on the anniversary of Epsilon Eridani.

Given the situation, the Cult and its founder's roots in Christianity, and the sudden fluidity of previously untouchable religious doctrine, contemporary observers predicted a rapid accommodation between the Cult and either the Anglican or the Catholic Church. The times being what they were, either organization could have easily accommodated a new saint and a new prophet, along with a bit of tacked‐on theology. The Cult would, in return, receive legitimization and access to organizational resources. And indeed, both organizations, as well as several others, covertly sent negotiators to talk with the Cult leadership.

This seemingly compelling analysis displayed the same lack of understanding that had plagued the Church. The Cult proved itself extremely capable of leveraging influence within the MSY into organizational capability. More importantly and more fundamentally, the Cult's core tenets made even a partial reconciliation almost impossible, and analysts simply did not understand the depths of some of the heresies being perpetuated.

As merely one example, one can point out the Cult's implicit sense of betrayal by God. This sense of betrayal and alienation is a theme that pervades much of the Cult's teachings, at least in the main set headlined by the Cult leadership. Never spoken about or acknowledged, it is nonetheless palpable to all those who have investigated its beliefs.

The theology of the Cult directly accuses God of being out of touch with Humanity. God, while benevolent, did not understand human motivation, constructing a system that was decidedly unfair to Humanity, requiring the intervention of agents to correct, first in the form of Christ, and second in the form of their Goddess. In this respect, their conception of God is closer to the Incubators than to the view found in any of the classical monotheist religions.

Fueled by what they see as an easy escape hatch through their Goddess, the Cult feels little need to divert worship in his direction. Instead, they prefer to worship a Goddess they feel is more deserving, and who has earned their affection, even if they acknowledge that this "Goddess" is nowhere near a Goddess in the Western sense.

While this attitude and belief is not universal within the Cult, which contains considerable internal strife and disagreements, it holds considerable sway within the leadership, especially in the person of the founder. From this perspective, it is easy to see why the Cult finds outside control utterly unthinkable, and why mainstream Christianity found it utterly impossible to stomach its heresies. The slight current relationship between the Cult and the church of Sakura's father is merely a fig leaf, giving the former a veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of worried parents, and allowing the latter to inflate its membership numbers.

We leave it to you, the reader, to judge what to say to your daughters, but if you are religious, know that the Cult does not match your beliefs.

— Parenting Plexus Online, "Special Edition: So Your Daughter Made a Contract. Now What?" article title "Things to Know about the Cult of Hope," excerpt.