One of the most well‐known aspects of the military enhancement package is the Permanent Awareness Module. Restricted in availability due to both production costs and concerns about its effects on society, the module is essentially what it says on the tin. It obviates the customary regimen of hormonal supplements and nanite boosters used to ward off sleep, replacing it with a self‐contained, self‐sufficient system capable of stabilizing all the necessary circadian rhythms and performing all the necessary neural maintenance tasks.
"Never Sleep Again!"
Despite this popular slogan of its designers, often bandied about in military and magical girl circles, the module does not, in fact, prevent all instances of sleep. While it eliminates the standard day‐night cycle, those with the module installed are perfectly capable of taking naps should they feel tired. Indeed, such naps have several salutary benefits, and it is common to find soldiers on break taking relaxing naps. The difference is that there is no real need to sleep and, with the flip of an internal switch, there is no longer even the desire to.
Research is still ongoing as to the apparent increase in cases of psychosis among module recipients. The effect appears to be psychological in nature; apparently, experiencing too long a single bout of consciousness is destabilizing to some individuals. If subjects awake for more than two continuous months are removed from consideration, the statistical increase in cases of mental instability disappears, at least among the rare civilian module recipients, for whom non‐user comparison groups can easily be found.
Thus, the advice to your daughter in this case is simple, and matches military recommendations: take naps when you can, even if you don't need to.
— Parenting Plexus Online, "Special Edition: So Your Daughter Made a Contract. Now What?" article title "Your Post‐human Child," excerpt.
〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①
The Ribbon, as it is referred to, is the primary, and only, relic of the Cult of Hope. Claimed by Akemi Homura to be a gift from their Goddess herself, it is venerated and kept in a heavily guarded metamaterial case at the main Cult church, in Mitakihara City, with viewing permitted only to magical girls. Cult scientists claim that the Ribbon shows none of the signs of aging that would be expected in a mundane piece of cloth that old, despite the lack of any obvious enchantments. More conventional scientists are skeptical, but are not permitted study.
Within the Cult, the Ribbon is believed to grant visions to a lucky, chosen few of those who visit. Certainly, numerous girls, including Sakura Kyouko herself, can be found claiming to have experienced exactly that, though the number pales in comparison to the total number of visitors the artifact has received. However, internal recordings from girls who have volunteered to be studied, including memory traces from neural implants, have failed to ever uncover anything other than slightly elevated heart and respiratory rates. 〈Nonetheless, these girls insist on their memories, even if the NeverForget modules of their tactical advisors fail to ever record any of it. MSY empaths report that none of them seem to be lying, but also that they are similarly unable to capture even a glimpse of the memory, a very unusual result.〉②
The veracity of these supposed visions is thus highly doubtful.
〈While it is true that there exist instances of girls predicting the future with apparent accuracy, based on these supposed visions, there are equally many instances of these predictions failing to happen. Cult members insist that this is due to purposeful avoidance on their part, but even if this were true, there is another, much simpler explanation that can be proposed: Magical girl legends are littered with examples of girls with precognition, and there are numerous girls still living who remember meeting one. Such visions could simply be tapping into a poorly‐understood power, done in the throes of religious passion.〉①
〈It is, however, strange that after the early parts of the Information Age, pure precognitive magical girls appear to disappear entirely from the record, and none have been contracted since.〉①
— Infopedia article, "The Ribbon," mode: discursive, extended detail, high density.
Instructing the vehicle to take her to the desired location, the local MSY branch office, Ryouko found herself first diving underground, the interior of the vehicle decorating itself with a field of stars. Then she reemerged at ground level, and found herself slowing to a halt in front of what appeared to be an old style Catholic Church. The front façade was lavished with ample stained glass, with imagery that looked decidedly non‐standard.
The hell? she thought.
"Vehicle," she said. "I'm heading for the local MSY branch office. The Research District Armory, MSY Corridor. I forwarded you my movement orders."
For non‐basic commands, civilian machines did not accept direct relay from cortical implants.
"This is the location indicated," the vehicle said, in a pleasant voice. "Mitakihara City District Zero‐Three Home Defense Armory. The aboveground floors also serve as a religious center. Cult of Hope, to be precise."
The machine paused.
"This confusion is common. I can give more information if—"
"No, it's alright," Ryouko said. "My mistake. Let me out."
She stepped onto the curb, shaking her head at missing the obvious symbolism shaped into the glass: the armored girls with swords hacking at invisible enemies, shooting stars in the background. There was even an embedded soul gem, if you looked carefully.
I guess I'm here whether I want to be or not, she grimaced. They're serious about the conversion, then.
She advanced up the steps, briefly meeting the eyes of a pair of girls, children far too young to be contracted. They looked away hastily, embarrassed, then stared at her again once they thought she wasn't looking. Ryouko wondered if their parents knew they were here.
She checked her internal chronometer. One o'clock, right on time.
As she approached the arched doorway, flanked by arriving acolytes, Asaka and Patricia stepped forward from behind a column, appearing to her right. They exchanged greetings.
"With all due respect," Ryouko declared, deciding she might as well be blunt about it. "I'm not interested in joining the Cult."
Patricia and Asaka exchanged glances. Patricia chuckled slightly.
"Well, I won't deny we were considering pitching the idea to you," she said. "But that's not the reason you're here. This is, indeed, a fully‐staffed MSY military branch office and armory. One of the largest, in fact. This Church isn't all that big, so aboveground it doesn't look too big, but there's a large underground component, which incidentally connects to the subterranean city fortifications. Come on, let's go perform those upgrades we've been talking about."
Patricia gestured for her to follow, and she did so, passing by the main assembly area, where Kyouko was pontificating on "mirroring Humanity", or something like that. As she walked by one of the entryways, Kyouko made brief eye contact with her.
And then they stepped into an elevator.
They stepped off at the fourth floor, counting downward.
B4, Medical Center, the elevator thought to her, just as she was starting to wonder where she was. It startled her slightly. She was used to her elevators talking or silent, not talking into her brain.
Ryouko was surprised to find them in what appeared to be an airlock.
The hallway in front of them, beyond the airlock door, had a curious design; the walls of each room were completely transparent, with a transparent door, too. Weren't they concerned about privacy?
Pack drones scurried along the floor, carrying cargo she could sense was grief cubes.
She followed the example of the other two, who had chosen to stand still and stare at the horizon.
"Is something supposed to—" she began.
She jumped, an intense burning sensation searing itself into her skin.
"Ow!" she complained. "Ow, ow, ow!"
She did a little hopping dance, vaguely aware that she was sounding way more girlish than she usually endeavored for. She looked at the other two, who continue to hold rigid poses, but who had started smirking.
"The hell—" she began again, but then the heat subsided.
"—is this!" she finished, voice wavering as she realized it was over.
"UV sterilization," Patricia explained pedantically, turning to face her and hiding a smile. "It used to be that such an intense level of radiation would have given you major sunburns, and probably melanoma to every hospital worker, but the Clinical Immortality packages make that much less of an issue. A bacterial infection could easily finish an injured girl on the brink, whereas for the workers it's just a bit of discomfort. The cost‐benefit works out. Also, for your information, standing still makes the process faster."
"Why didn't you warn me?" Ryouko managed to say, shaking her hand spastically. She took the moment to look up what a "sunburn" was, so she wouldn't have to embarrass herself by asking.
"It's tradition," Asaka said, grinning. "Recruits have such difficulty handling a little pain. The holovideos make for excellent humiliation material later. Trust me, you're doing well."
Several of the hospital staff, who had been watching through the transparent airlock, smirked and gave thumbs‐up, before continuing on.
"If I recall correctly," Patricia said. "Didn't you damage the door trying to escape your first time?"
Asaka gave her a dirty look.
"Not everyone happens to have your composure," she grunted. "Anyway, there's another part to this. If we wanted to be cruel, we wouldn't warn you."
"Another part?" Ryouko asked incredulously.
"Don't worry," Patricia said. "It's not so bad. Just some microdrones to scrub down any debris left on your skin. It helps reduce particulate count. It's not that intrusive."
"Microdrones?" Ryouko repeated.
She felt something land on her head. Before she had the chance to ask, she spotted several small, insectoid robots land on Patricia's head. Feeling an itching sensation at her ankles, she looked down and spotted one circling her foot, scraping her skin with its bottom surface.
"This is rather disconcerting," she said through gritted teeth, making the effort to word her thoughts carefully.
"Don't worry," Patricia said soothingly. "They're friendly, and they're not going to go under your clothes or anything like that. The military is a lot heavier on the technology than civilian life. You get used to it. Besides, I like these ones."
Ryouko was pretty sure she was wearing her most strenuous "Are you crazy?" expression.
Asaka caught her eye, then made a gesture with her finger near her head that implied that the answer to her question was "Yes."
"I guess it makes sense, after all," Asaka said, trying to look suave—and failing, due to the insect on her nose. "It's natural to have an affinity for your own primary weapon. For example, I like daggers."
Ryouko caught Patricia rolling her eyes at that.
"Why are we in a hospital anyway?" Ryouko asked, changing the topic slightly. She did her best to ignore the drone trying to crawl onto her cheek.
"We're here to reconfigure your internal mesh," Patricia explained. "And introduce multiple new types of nanites and implant assemblers into your bloodstream. Among other things. It's all part of the process. Didn't you read the welcome messages?"
"There were so many," Ryouko complained.
Her hair waved in strands behind her back like so many tentacles, shifting back and forth to allow drones passage and aid the cleaning process while trying to maintain a semblance of her preferred hairstyle. This applied to the others as well, of course.
"You know, it's always been my opinion that they should do the cortical datadump first," Asaka said. "It's ridiculous to expect teenagers to read all of that. Or adults for that matter."
"Well, the reconfiguration process makes the datadump more efficient," Patricia argued, pursing her lips.
"It works perfectly fine before, too," Asaka said. "Who cares if it's a little slower? It saves confusion."
"You can take that up with the military procedure AIs," Patricia said, shrugging. "It's not my job."
Ryouko noticed that the drones were starting to withdraw rapidly, jumping off her body and to the ground before scurrying away. A moment later, the airlock made a ding! noise, and the door in front of them slid open.
Exactly like a synthesizer finishing a food dish, Ryouko thought, trying to use humor to calm herself.
"Goddamn it, I feel like a dumbass," complained a magical girl appearing around the corner in a drone stretcher, wearing the universal blue patient uniform. Her leg was bent at a hideously unnatural angle, and was covered with nanogel, both secreted and applied. In her hand, she held several grief cubes, into which her soul gem ring was dumping corruption.
Accompanying her was an adult‐looking attendant and two worried looking teenagers. Ryouko quickly appraised their hands for soul gem rings, and found that the teenagers were wearing them and the attendant was not. The two girls also had fingernail marks.
"It happens to everyone," the attendant soothed. "We'll have you up and walking again within the hour."
"Can't I just get a healer?" the girl complained.
"For small things like broken bones, it's more efficient to do it medically rather than magically, if time isn't an issue," the attendant explained patiently. "It saves grief cubes."
They disappeared around the next corner, Ryouko, Asaka, and Patricia standing politely still to let them pass.
They led her to an exam room with a solitary exam chair. The door slid open as they approached, and the walls turned opaque, resolving her previous concern about privacy.
Intuiting what was expected, Ryouko sat down in the chair, placing her head between two head pads that seemed uncomfortably like restraints. She felt slightly vulnerable.
Patricia headed for an alcove in the wall, which was beginning to spit packets of material into a tray on the counter. Next to the tray was a glass canister full of dark red lollipops.
"Try to relax," Asaka said, looming over her. "Patricia is a trained specialist."
"No I'm not," the girl said absently, using a microneedle syringe to transfer the mysterious blue contents of a presealed packet into a tube that led to some sort of hand‐held device. "I have no training at all, not in this. I skipped a lot with my wish."
"I'm trying to relax her," Asaka said.
"It's alright," Ryouko commented. "The fact that she got it by magic is actually sort of reassuring. She can't be wrong. Probably."
Patricia gave the other girl a victorious look, then went back to fussing over some sort of console on the chair.
"Right, so ever get your internal specs reconfigured?" Asaka asked, leaning against the wall.
Ryouko shook her head.
"Not since I was too young to remember," she said.
"You sure?" Patricia asked, looking at her with one eye, manipulating another syringe. "This is pretty important. Even if you got it done illegally, it's best to tell us. We won't tell anyone."
"Why the hell would I?" Ryouko asked.
"Some people get adjustments to support their hobbies," Asaka said, shrugging. "Mountain climbers get gecko skin patches, things like that. The illegal ones are usually to circumvent the virtual reality restrictions. There's a whole subculture of gamers who do this. The government overlooks it as long as they don't cause too much trouble."
"Ah," Ryouko agreed. "I remember reading about that. I wouldn't imagine very many form contracts."
"You're looking at an example right here," Patricia commented, gesturing at Asaka. "I'll leave it to her to tell you if she has any illegal modifications."
Asaka gave her another dirty look.
"She knows very well being in the military makes it a moot point."
"Not for all of the mod types," Patricia persisted. "There are plenty of possibilities in virtual simulation the military doesn't want."
Asaka narrowed her eyes.
"Remind me again why I work with you," Asaka complained.
"Because I'm just so beautiful," she simpered sarcastically, putting her hand to her face. Asaka shook her fist threateningly.
"So you were into games?" Ryouko asked.
"Oh yes," Asaka said. "Still am, actually. It was all my friends and I did, all the time. I thought I knew my direction in life."
Ryouko nodded. It was not considered necessary that everyone do something productive. Just something that they enjoyed. That was enough for you to excuse yourself from school. You tended not to get more than the base minimum Alloc distribution, though, and your parents generally weren't particularly fond of the idea.
"It's not that bad," Asaka said, gleaning her thoughts. "Some are good enough that others will even tune in watch them play. The best get special entertainer dispositions. It's bigger than you think."
"Was your wish—" Ryouko began, before biting her tongue, too late.
"Sorry," she added hastily. "I didn't mean to pry."
Asaka made a dismissive noise.
"Rookie," she commented, not unkindly. "Don't worry, I'm not offended. You're on the right track, though. I won't say more than that."
Ryouko, realizing that Patricia hadn't said anything for quite a while, turned her head to look at the girl—or tried, anyway. She had forgotten her head was restrained, so she ended up just shifting her eyes, while inadvertently pressing her head into the padding.
Following her gaze, Asaka turned to look.
Patricia was staring at the rectangular device in her hand with an abstract frown, seemingly deep in thought.
"Is something wrong?" Asaka asked. "Why is this taking so long?"
"Her genetic profile is outside the five‐sigma safe limit for using the customary procedure," Patricia said airily, clearly not quite focusing on the conversation. "About six, to be more precise. Can't really get greater precision so far out."
"Which means…" Asaka cued, waving her hand.
"I will have to make some adjustments," Patricia said. "Don't worry, it doesn't affect anything. It just takes a little time. I submitted the profile to one of the genetic analysis AIs. Should be getting results anytime now."
Her comments were less reassuring than they were probably intended to be, given the flat monotone in which they were delivered.
"Ah, well," Asaka extemporized, looking back at Ryouko. "Six. I guess that makes you pretty special."
"It's about one in one billion," Ryouko said, consulting an internal calculator, eyes widening just a little.
There was series of "thunk!" sounds, as a series of more mysterious fluid packets arrived in the tray on the table. Patricia grabbed them and started injecting them into her device carefully. Asaka and Ryouko quieted down.
Patricia looked up and nodded at them, indicating she was done. She seemed distracted, though.
"Alright, do you know how this goes?" Asaka asked, leaning over her again, handing her a lollipop.
"No," Ryouko said, after trying and failing to nod her head. "Why the lollipop?"
"Never been to the VR section of the theater, I see," Asaka said. "Trust me. It helps."
Ryouko put the candy in her mouth, then almost pulled it back out in surprise.
Cinnamon, she thought. Pungent too.
Patricia walked over, eyes clear now. Whatever had been distracting her was gone and dealt with.
"There's an interface conduit under your head," Patricia said, connecting the device in her hand to a port on the chair. "It will align with the implants near the rear of your brainstem, for communication purposes. There'll be an authorization request; you have to give permission so the chair can have access."
"Okay," Ryouko said.
"The nanites will go in at various times throughout the procedure," Patricia continued. "Via microneedle to the back of the neck. It won't hurt, but just so you know. Your primary senses will have to reset, and your vision will definitely blackout initially. You won't be aware of the world, and there'll be a period in the middle where you'll be unconscious. Oh, and you haven't ever been to a VR theatre, right?"
"No," Ryouko said. "it's too expensive."
She smiled nervously.
Primary senses reset, she thought. Vision blacked out. Unconscious. It sounds so pleasant…
"It's a bit disorienting, then," Asaka said. "It might be better to put you to sleep, but then the implants can't calibrate properly."
"Uh, so I've been told," she amended hastily when Patricia looked in her direction and smirked.
"I see," Ryouko said.
"Then are you ready?" Patricia asked.
"Probably," she replied noncommittally.
"Then here goes," Patricia said.
A vague feeling of communication, similar to the feeling she got when she gave vehicles instruction, then—
〈Administrator access request to internal mesh detected,〉 something thought, on a deep, deep level. 〈Security verifiers appear to be valid. Permit request?〉
Ryouko took a breath.
Yes, she thought.
The world disappeared.
What— Ryouko thought, fighting rising panic. She couldn't see a thing, couldn't hear a thing, couldn't feel a thing.
Then, suddenly, she smelled… cinnamon, and it helped to ground and calm her.
Olfaction is the most primitive of the senses, a female voice in her head explained. And the most deeply engrained. It uses a different neural pathway. Everything is fine.
Suddenly, sensation rushed back into her world. She found herself in a bed, looking at a giant floating graphic, at perfect viewing distance, against a relaxing mountain backdrop. She tried to move, experimentally, and found she couldn't. Strangely, it wasn't panicking, but rather relaxing.
She suspected her brain was being fed a substantial quantity of drugs.
The screen displayed two logos. On the left, the hammer and lightning of Hephaestus Nanotechnology. On the right, the shattered clock of Chronos Biologics.
These receded into the background, replaced on the right by a laundry list of progress bars and a readout of what was happening. At the top of the readout it said: "Minimal‐level Sensory Interface. Apologies for the lack of entertainment! "
At the end, there was a little heart symbol. Whoever designed this had had a strange sense of humor.
"Anyway," the readout continued. "We'll be upgrading your systems now! Isn't it exciting? Go ahead and follow the progress readouts on the right. On the left, we will be showing some graphics detailing your new modifications. Just a few more seconds…"
"Upgrade to military‐grade enhancement package proceeding…"
"Magical Girl Distribution, Version 3.5"
"Five‐Sigma genetic profile detected, special processing required. Please standby…"
"Processing complete. Proceeding with Stage One."
On the left, a friendly graphic explained that Stage One involved the removal of unnecessary restrictions and implants, particularly those that tended to fail when used by a magical girl. It showed a diagram of her body with a prominent X for whatever was being removed, along with little lines leading to invisibly small description. It was quite an accurate diagram.
They don't need to be that anatomically correct… she thought, focusing on one of the X's. It zoomed in, revealing that the support network around her heart was slated for degradation, since detailed testing had revealed that it did not improve combat performance for magical girls, and wasted energy besides.
"Uninstalling Civilian Emergency Safety Main Control…"
"Uninstalling civilian access restrictions. Please wait for authorization."
"Uninstalling virtual reality restrictions…"
"Uninstalling mind‐to‐mind communication restrictions…"
"Uninstalling sensory feed partitioning…"
"Disabling cardiopulmonary support devices…"
"Disabling muscular enhancements…"
"Disabling redundant immune system enhancements…"
"Disabling redundant antitoxin systems…"
"Marking defunct nanospecies for self‐disposal…"
"Marking obsolete implants for degradation…"
"Reconfiguring remaining implants…"
"Stage One complete. Proceeding with Stage Two."
This time, the graphic explained to her that it was installing the low complexity implants, those that reliably worked for magical girls. Instead of giving her the option to review technical specs, it went into a marketing slideshow about "her new body," explaining cheerfully that military skeletal enhancements reduced risk of bone breakage by 30%, even in magical girls, and that Chronos Omnivisual Optical Implants would enable her to see into the low UV and high infrared ranges, granting enhanced perceptivity in combat. She could also switch to seeing in pure infrared, but for technical reasons that meant sacrificing standard vision.
Ryouko had never quite intuitively understood why so many in the media had such a penchant for insisting that humanity was now a race of robots, or cyborgs rather. She certainly understood now.
She could still smell the cinnamon.
"Injecting new nanite species. Please wait for circulatory localization…"
"Preparing skeletal enhancements for upgrade to military‐grade…"
"Preparing nanoelectrode arrays for rapid expansion…"
"Preparing ocular implants for spectrum expansion…"
"Elevating security authorization of primary communication node to Level One…"
"Preparing communications nodes for expansion…"
"Installing command and control protocols…"
"Processing redesign of nasal epithelial…"
"Processing implant placement for auditory enhancements…"
"Processing necessary spinal canal adjustments…"
"Processing brain structure for implant placement. This will take up to two minutes."
Ryouko continued to stare at the virtual screen—not that she had any choice. She considered herself a secure denizen of the future age, but she had to admit the sheer length of the list was growing unsettling. Plus, if she understood things correctly, she wasn't even getting half of what the standard infantry received, primarily because the majority of the improvements didn't work with magical girls.
"Done. Injecting supplemental nutrient serums…"
"Initializing implant assembly. You are advised implant assembly and enhancement will not fully complete for 2 hours‒1 week, depending."
This last line was highlighted brightly, and Ryouko noticed she was being forced to look at it.
"Stage Two is now complete. Beginning Stage Three…"
This stage was for installing her Tactical Advisor which, the graphic noted, would provide her with a personal advisor and assistant both in combat and outside, one capable of sorting her messages, providing useful advice and tactical analysis, and facilitating communication. It also included NeverForget technology, to ensure that she would always have access to all her memories, but without bothering her with pointless constant recollection.
"Installing Spinal Node Tactical Advisor, Version 1.8…"
"Injecting EFA nanite populations…"
"Injecting high‐energy density feed serum…"
"Processing medium‐detail CNS wiring. This takes approximately one hour, for which duration you will be unconscious. Suppressing conscious activity…"
Oh here it is, Ryouko thought. I guess I should—
Wait, what? Done?
"Reconfiguring CNS implants…"
She stared at the screen—again, not that she had any choice. Had that really been an hour? It must have been…
"Stage Three complete. Tactical Advisor will be ready for initial activation in approximately five hours. Beginning Stage Four…"
Stage Four installed the implant that would completely remove her need to sleep.
"Installing Permanent Awareness Module…"
"Injecting nanite populations. Please wait for circulatory localization…"
"Injecting temporary hormonal stabilizers…"
"Processing endocrine modifications…"
"Configuring nanoelectrodes for long‐term modulatory firing…"
"Installing circadian synchronization routines…"
"Stage Four complete. You are advised that you may feel dizziness, tiredness, or other symptoms similar to jet lag for the next couple of days. These will fade with time."
"Installation complete. System resetting. Please prepare for sensory blackout in 5… 4… 3—"
Ryouko gritted her virtual teeth and found, to her surprise, that she actually could.
She gasped when she finally woke back up, lollipop falling out of her mouth, barely more than a stick. She jerked forward out of the chair, then looked rapidly around, finding Patricia and Asaka standing around her, wearing amused looks.
Ryouko took a moment to feel her face with her hands.
"So how long was that?" she asked, looking at Patricia.
"Two hours," the girl said. "Time perception is altered."
"I see," Ryouko said, getting up out of the chair.
"And now it's my show," Asaka said, gesturing. "Follow me. We're heading for the armory."
Ryouko followed readily, but Patricia hung back, doing something with the chair. Ryouko gave her a questioning look.
"Ah, don't mind me," Patricia said. "I've got things to do. Sorry."
Ryouko nodded and followed the other girl out the door, as the walls returned to transparency.
"Don't tell her I told you so, but something's got her seriously spooked," Asaka said, as they headed for the airlock.
"What do you mean?" Ryouko asked.
"She didn't have 'things to do' this morning," Asaka said, giving her a sly look. "In fact, she promised me she'd stick around for the whole thing. Now suddenly it's 'Oh no, I forgot about something vague, and I must take care of it now.' Trust me. I can tell."
Ryouko thought about that.
"Does it have anything to do with me?" she asked, as they stepped into the airlock.
"Maybe," Asaka said. "It's not like anything else happened today."
Ryouko was mildly surprised when the elevator doors opened without forcing her to wait to be burned, then swarmed with drones.
Right, we're going out, not in, she thought.
I wonder what has Patricia worried, she thought, a moment later, as the elevator doors opened on the tenth floor, counting downward.
She held up her arm and looked at it, as if she could really tell anything just by looking at it.
She said everything would be fine if she made some adjustments, Ryouko thought. But damned if this doesn't make me paranoid.
But no enhancement system has malfunctioned in over a century. Surely they must have it perfected by now.
"It's all a bit new," she said, smiling nervously at Asaka as they walked down a long hallway lined with impassive metal doors. "The implants are growing as we speak, right?"
"Yes," Asaka said. "You'll start to notice some differences soon enough."
Ryouko thought about that.
So I should be able to…
And as quick as thought, it was done.
"So did you get that?" Ryouko asked.
"Yes," Asaka said. "A memory snapshot, right?"
"That's right," Ryouko said. "A girl I met once, a long time ago. My memory might be inaccurate, but try your facial recognition on it."
"Why?" Asaka asked. "I mean, it's not as if—"
The girl halted, freezing nearly midstep.
"What is it?" Ryouko asked.
But Asaka stood there, with the strangest of expressions, as if she were shocked and confused at the same time. Ryouko opened her mouth to ask—
"We're here," Asaka said suddenly, striding forward with enormous steps, and a door far in front of them slid open.
Asaka walked into the warehouse‐style room, not slackening her pace. Ryouko, confused, followed—and was briefly flabbergasted, gaping around at the endless racks of military armaments, piled at least fifty feet high. She had to look carefully to see the far wall.
"This isn't a frontline planet," Asaka explained, holding her arms out above her head in an encompassing gesture. "So the armory is pretty sparse. But we've got good stuff."
"Sparse," Ryouko repeated.
"And as a magical girl," Asaka continued, "you're entitled to have whatever you want, whenever you want. Well, except some of the more expensive stuff. And the weapons of mass destruction. But you can have anything found in a standard armory."
She stopped, grabbing a pistol off the rack and holding it out to Ryouko so she could grab it, smiling broadly.
Ryouko took it, feeling its weight—rather nervously, she had to admit. Weapons were not something she had ever handled.
"It's a SW‒155 officer's pistol," Asaka said, smiling in such a way as to give Ryouko the impression she liked talking about weapons. "You're required to keep one with you whenever you're in alien combat. It might not look much compared to some of the other things here, but it's one of the most advanced weapons in existence."
"You should take the time to practice with it later at the firing range on the eighth floor," she said. "I'd be glad to show you. But it's got all kinds of features. Like all military weapons, it refuses to respond unless the wielder has a Human DNA trace. More importantly, it doesn't just fire bullets. It uses universal ammunition, and you can use your mental interface or the manual controls to order it to fire all sorts of things, such as concussion grenades, flashbangs, antiarmor missiles, small drones, various modalities of lasers, and so forth. It's the first of its kind."
"The point is that, as an officer and magical girl, it's a last resort weapon. It's supposed to be able to do anything and everything, should the need ever arise. Other weapons aren't like that—it's horribly energy‐inefficient, but it's not meant for sustained use. Hopefully you'll never have to use it."
"Remember, though," she said. "There are limits to what is possible, so if you want to fire something like an antiarmor missile, you're going to have feed it several magazines of ammunition. That's why it's recommended you always carry at least six. Anyway, you can have everything sent home to you. Unless you really want to go home carrying it."
Ryouko nodded, making a mental note to figure out exactly how you had things "sent home to you."
Ryouko sighted down the barrel of her weapon experimentally, just like she had seen in movies. She had no idea what she was doing. Was she going to get training or what?
"Asaka‐san, why did you dodge my question earlier?" she asked, not having entirely forgotten. "About the girl."
She figured bluntness was the only way to go.
Asaka's smile faded, just slightly.
"Transform for me," she said.
"Why?" Ryouko asked.
I have to think about it, Asaka thought. I don't know. But I'm serious about the transformation.
Ryouko did so, the bright green light casting a strange coloring onto the assorted weaponry.
"Asaka‐san," she began, uncertain whether to be annoyed or confused.
Just give me some time, Asaka thought.
"Take off your soul gem cover," Asaka said.
"My what?" Ryouko asked, blinking.
"Your soul gem cover. Kyouko must have given you one. Only you can remove it."
"Oh, that," she said, surprised.
Ryouko had completely forgotten about that. She reached down to the base of her neck, trying to pry at the transparent covering. To her surprise, it came off easily, shaping itself back into a sphere. Had it been with her all this time? Had it covered her ring, somehow?
"Right then," Asaka said. "You can keep that one for yourself as a spare. Kyouko has gotten a replacement by now, I'm sure."
She leaned forward, pulling a large handful of something out of the pocket of her jeans.
"Hold out your hand," she ordered.
Ryouko did so, and Asaka dropped into her palm… what appeared to be several exact replicas of her soul gem. They all glowed with the same pulsing light as her own.
But… they seemed empty, somehow.
"What is this?" Ryouko asked, holding up the gems to look at them carefully.
"Kyouko sent in the specs yesterday," the girl said, handing her another handful, making six in total. "It turns out that, on basically any sensor we can design, soul gems don't look like anything but inexplicably glowing gems. Yeah, we can tell the difference, and if you get up close the sensors can't figure out what mineral they're made of, but for most purposes they serve as perfect decoys. The aliens don't know which one to target."
"Clever," Ryouko commented.
"Try it," Asaka said. "Drop them on your neck. Trust me."
She tried to do as instructed, but it wasn't really possible to "drop" something onto her neck, not when she was standing upright. She leaned back and released them, feeling awkward, convinced most would drop into the V‐shape of the cleavage of her costume, or else miss entirely and drop to the floor—she wasn't the most bosomy of girls, no matter how her friends tried to reassure her. In fact, she had a nagging suspicion her costume was designed in some aspects to hide that fact. It did seem rather assertive…
Instead of falling like rocks, the gems sprouted miniature legs and scrabbled around her body, in an experience reminiscent of the previous airlock microdrones. They settled into various positions—on top of her hands, on her forearms, in the middle of her belly, and in the middle of her back. One nestled in her hair.
They were all plausible soul gem positions, she realized.
"Does everything have to involve bug drones?" she asked. "It's a little unsettling."
"It's how it is. Anyway, they can't change forms as easily as actual soul gems, so if you untransform, they try to gather in a pocket or your hand or something. They're pretty intelligent. You're only supposed to wear them when fighting aliens, so you can take them off the rest of the time. But anyway…"
She turned to face the rack with the pistols. One of the drawers underneath slid forward automatically. It contained what appeared to be a large set of identically shaped pieces of plastic, except that they contained the barely visible traces of electronics. One was colored slightly red. All were shaped like five‐pointed stars.
Ryouko then realized the drawer had her name displayed on the front, in the little electronic screen. How had she missed that?
"Custom‐made," Asaka explained. "These are too complicated to crawl anywhere, so we'll have to put them on manually, just this once."
Stepping forward, she started picking up the devices and placing them roughly onto the location of the fake soul gems. They flowed slightly, settling onto the gems and sticking to her body and clothing.
Ryouko held up her right hand, the one still grasping the pistol, looking at the false gem pulsating, green light distorted by the electronic traces running over it.
"What are they?" she asked, placing the pistol back on the rack. She had forgotten she was carrying it.
"Personal protection devices," Asaka said. "Really, the goal is to protect the soul gem, but if we're going to be wearing a bunch of fakes, they've at least got to be convincing fakes, so they get some protection too."
Asaka reached for the last piece, the one tinged slightly red.
"And this is the main piece," she said, holding it up. "The one for your actual soul gem. It's not obvious, but it's much more powerful than the other ones. It can withstand most small‐arms fire, and even sacrifice itself to stop the main gun of alien armor from damaging the gem. Which is not to say you should just let them keep shooting it."
"Do we get an explanation of everything later?" Ryouko asked, starting to feel a little overwhelmed.
"Yes," Asaka said, leaning down to apply the main piece. "And you even get a cortex infodump. But I might as well let you hear it now. I'm sorry to talk your ears off, but it really is important for you to know."
"Anyway," Asaka continued. "It's considered very important to get soul gem protection as soon as possible. The soul gem is you, after all. I assume you know that, by now. Kyouko said you were very knowledgeable."
"Yes," Ryouko agreed.
Asaka stood back up, as the main soul gem piece lost its red color. Then, suddenly, all the gems, authentic soul gem included, disappeared from sight.
"Wow," Ryouko said, startled.
"Okay, so, all these pieces together are actually designed to work together as a personal protective system," Asaka lectured. "They cloak and protect the fake gems to fool the aliens, but if push comes to shove they'll focus on defending the main gem. They deflect projectiles and beam weaponry and have little lasers to try and deflect small projectiles away. They're self‐sufficient as long as there's a little sun, but if you operate in darkness for too long they'll run low on power. We have special chargers for that."
Ryouko stared at her hand, trying to spot the gem somehow. She couldn't. She rubbed it with her other hand and, yes, she could still feel it.
"Cool, right?" Asaka asked rhetorically. "The aliens are pretty good at ignoring stealth, though, so we don't rely on it. The gems also try to mislead them as much as possible. The main one uses a light sensor to keep track of the status of your soul gem. Initially, all the gems will dim together, but if you really start digging deep, the gems will randomize how bright they are, so the aliens can't keep track of how damaged you are. You'll know instinctively, of course, and your teammates and supporting Humans will know the real state of things through the C&C systems. Still, you should probably make a habit of keeping people informed telepathically. The aliens are also damned good at jamming local transmissions."
"They thought this through," Ryouko said, genuinely impressed.
"Yes," Asaka said. "Military Research spent eight years designing the damned things, so they better be pretty impressive. Before, we just wore little hardened covers and fake glowing gems we had to stick on manually every time. It was terrible. But the alternative was getting sniped. The aliens figured out the soul gem thing pretty quickly. Still, they could probably be improved; the whole system seems clunky to me, and I appreciate that it's hard to give your actual soul gems legs to fool anyone, but…"
Her voice trailed off.
"I see," Ryouko reminded, once Asaka had spent too long staring at the middle distance.
"Right, then," Asaka said, shaking her head. "Untransform."
Ryouko did so.
The moment she finished, the fake soul gems distributed around her body uncloaked, lifted themselves back into standing positions, faux‐plastic covers included, and scurried around, stuffing themselves into the pockets of her pants.
"Convenient, huh? If you don't have any pockets they stick to you or clothing," Asaka said. "Patricia thinks they're cute. She thinks they're all cute. That's why she's crazy. Anyway, you're keeping those with you. It shouldn't be too burdensome."
Thinking of something, Ryouko held up her hand to look at the soul gem ring. The main cover was straining itself to form into the right shape. Finally, it succeeded and settled down, and her ring felt just a little bulkier than usual.
"The scientists were really surprised by that, actually," Asaka said. "They thought the cover would stay near where your gem used to be, so originally they designed it to just stick in place near your neck, and you'd have to move it manually. Magic works in strange ways."
Ryouko felt her ring with her fingers, thinking.
Civilians thought they lived in a futuristic world, but the things she was seeing here would have stunned any of her friends, had she shown them. Indeed, she could probably pass it off as magical girl magic easily.
If the military was capable of things like this, and were severely outclassed by the aliens, then what could the aliens do?
"Is there anything else you want to show me here?" Ryouko asked.
"I'd love to spend all day here," Asaka said, looking at her from the side. "But frankly, you get everything you need to know later, so you don't need to hear me go on and on. There's only one other piece of required equipment."
She turned to face another one of the racks and Ryouko realized that the entire time they hadn't walked so much as twenty feet into the warehouse. All the standard equipment was right there in the front. It made sense.
Asaka held up what appeared to be a black backpack, cased with some sort of hard material.
"And that is…" Ryouko asked.
"A backpack," Asaka said. "It holds things. It is technically standard equipment, but most girls don't like wearing it."
"Oh," Ryouko said. "After everything else, that seems rather… prosaic."
"I wasn't finished," Asaka said, amused. "It can hand you things on command. Watch."
She put the pack on her back, then held her hand behind her. A moment later, part of the casing of the bag realigned, opening a small hole. It ejected a round canister, which Asaka caught adroitly, holding it up.
"This is just a demo object," she said, shoving it back behind her and into the bag, which opened a hole automatically to suck it back in. "But you get the point. Normally, it'd be ammo packs or grief cubes. For really critical situations, there's even a little robotic arm that will hold cubes up to your gem for you, but it's sort of unwieldy."
"That's… impressive," Ryouko said.
"It also contains a personal cloaking device," Asaka said.
"Huh," Ryouko said, rather meaninglessly.
"Not that it's all that useful," the other girl said. "It's limited duration, and most alien vehicles and large drones have scanners that can see through it, so you basically never use it. Still, it's worth having. More than the infantry get."
"Anyway, that's just to introduce you to it," she finished, dropping the bag back into a bin. "No reason for you to take that home either."
"Okay," Ryouko repeated.
She thought for a moment, putting her hand to her chin.
"So where to now?" she asked.
"You're done for the day," Asaka said. "Personal recommendation, though. Make an appointment with your personal psychiatrist now, so you can get good times. An introductory appointment is required, though hopefully you'll never have to see her again."
"Psychiatrist?" Ryouko asked. "What? Is it mandatory or something?"
"It was in one of the messages," Asaka said. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to take you on a little tour."
"If it's not too personal a question…" Ryouko began.
The two of them were taking a moment to relax in what was apparently Asaka's room, on the fifth floor, counting down. Asaka lounged on her bed, while Ryouko sat in a metal chair. The room was cramped, even more cramped than she was used to. She supposed it wasn't that easy to make space underground.
"What's the appeal of the Cult anyway?" Ryouko asked, gesturing at religious memorabilia strewn across a desk and stuck to the walls: a little figurine of Akemi Homura, a figurine of a magical girl making a wish, artist renditions of Homura in flight with white wings, of a mist‐white Goddess, of the symbol of the cult, a stylized soul gem depositing corruption into a circle of grief cubes.
"I mean, you don't seem like the type of girl who'd be attracted to that kind of stuff," she elaborated.
Asaka smiled slightly, looking down.
"That's right," she said. "I'm not."
She thought for a moment.
"It's not the easiest thing to explain," she said. "I guess part of it is that I want meaning, you know? I got what I wanted with my wish, but I've come to realize since then that I don't really know what to do with it. I've drifted through life for a long while."
She seemed to think for a moment.
"I had a friend—a fresh recruit, just like you—who lost her soul to despair, without ever understanding. The last thing she asked was 'Why?' I hope now that I would know what to say, if someone else asked me the same question."
"I see," Ryouko said, looking away. She wasn't really expecting a response like that.
"No you don't," Asaka said, looking amused. "But it's okay. It's better if you don't. And in any case, it's not just that. I'm not the type of person to be won over just because I want to feel good about my life."
She looked down.
"You know what, forget the rest of the tour," she said, making a dismissive gesture. "The armory was important, but this is now a waste of time. I have something more important to show you first. You'll understand soon enough."
"Have you ever heard of the Ribbon?" she asked.
Seeing the Ribbon of the Goddess involved, as might be expected, waiting in a really, really long line. This was aggravated by the practice of limiting group size to at most three at a time, though the strict five‐minute limit did speed things quite a bit.
It was a novel experience, since generally speaking there were very few things that still involved queuing up. Goods you got at the store were either free, or the Allocs were automatically deducted when you left the building. Security at the starport was handled by ubiquitous drones and scanners, rather than any formalized checkpoint. Primary school classes still did it occasionally, though.
Ryouko spent the time continuing to read her messages—there were so many of them—reading some articles on Infopedia, and listening to the chatter of the girls around her. Eavesdropping on the conversations, the scene didn't convey as much of the air of a religious experience as she expected. By and large, the atmosphere was informal, and, going by the attitudes of the visitors, the scene resembled more schoolgirls on a school trip than pilgrims visiting a sacred artifact.
The location, of course, was something else. The room was cavernous, with a high arching roof and extensive stained glass, clearly designed to try and make the occupants feel small. The side walls were covered with images of magical girls. To her right, they were uniformly triumphant and radiant, destroying everything around them. To her left, they were dying, fading, falling out of the sky.
At the far end of the room were three images, two flanking the artifact they were here to see. The Ribbon itself was barely visible in its glass box on a pedestal, but the enormous images couldn't be missed.
On the right, Homura with white wings, purple aura radiant, eyes serene. On the left, Homura with black wings, black corruption oozing, eyes crazed. In the middle, a white‐misted goddess in an all‐embracing pose.
One thing was for certain—the Cult certainly did not lack resources.
Of course, if you were observant, you could spot other strange details about the crowd of girls. For instance, the sheer ethnic diversity was extremely unusual, even in this age of easy international travel. If you looked more carefully, you would also note the uniformity with which the girls all wore soul gem rings and fingernail marks, of one sort or another.
And even if you were not observant, it would have been difficult not to notice the two girls in full costume, standing at guard at the front of the line, or the strange shimmering that occurred every ten minutes in the gap between them, almost as if the air itself were briefly glowing. Ryouko suspected it was a forcefield.
Except forcefields were expensive, the type of thing you only saw on capital ships.
And you would have had to be blind to miss the flashes of transformation light that repeatedly shone as girls approached the pedestal, which was considered approachable only by magical girls in costume.
There was something about the forcefield shimmer that bothered her, though. It was red, yes, very red, but there was something strange about the color. The flashes were too brief for her to focus, but it nagged at her.
"So you're seeing the forcefield, huh?" Asaka asked, noticing her peering at the now empty‐seeming gap.
"Oh, yes," Ryouko said, surprised. "So it is a forcefield, then?"
"Yes," Asaka said. "And in case you're wondering, that impossibly red color is in the upper infrared. They don't normally shimmer in the visual. Hmm, they must have improved the enhancement process. Those optical implants took fourteen hours to come online for me."
Ryouko took a moment to think that through.
"Nothing else looks different, though," she said, looking around experimentally at the other girls, the statues, the walls—though now that she searched for it, the stained glass looked vaguely strange.
"It's complicated," Asaka said. "You don't really notice unless the infrared or UV is particularly powerful, but it's enough for you to grab a bit more detail from most objects. Very subtle. If the sun is still up when you go outside, that'll be quite an experience. You get used to it, though. No one even notices anymore."
"Is it useful for night vision?" Ryouko said, asking the first thing she thought of.
"Unfortunately, not really," Asaka said. "The spectrum isn't widened enough. You'll have to switch to pure infrared for night vision. That's the point. And actually, as a magical girl, you'll rarely ever want to."
"Why?" Ryouko asked.
"You were with us last night, weren't you?" Asaka said. "Didn't you notice how well you could see in those dark alleys? Being a magical girl comes with a lot of benefits, including absurdly good night vision. Plus, we have—"
She paused, thinking about how to word it.
"An instinct, I guess," she finished. "A sort of sixth sense for the EM spectrum. Patricia could explain better, but it's why you generally pay attention to your battle instincts. It's the sort of thing they teach you in training. The spacers, especially, really know about it."
"Is there a way to check how these implants are coming along?" Ryouko asked, still peering experimentally around her. "Usually I don't think about these things, you know."
"Civilians usually only have diagnostics in Emergency Mode," Asaka explained patiently. "We can check them on demand, but only once the tactical computer comes online. You'll know when it does; it will tell you. Again, Patricia can—"
"Evangelizing, Asaka?" Patricia asked, appearing almost as if summoned. "I'm impressed. I didn't know you had it in you."
She gestured at the religious artifact in front of them. They were finally approaching the front of the line.
Ryouko watched the situation carefully. She too was curious why she was here, but Asaka had been evasive when questioned, insisting that she had to come. But just what was so important about showing her a religious artifact? It couldn't just be an attempt to convert her… could it?
Asaka made a sour expression.
"She's going to be disappointed, you know," Patricia chastised. "Most of the time—the vast majority of the time—it's just a ribbon."
"Well, you never know," Asaka said flatly.
"I'm just here to accompany them," Patricia explained apologetically to the girl behind them in line, who was clearly about to complain about Patricia's insertion into the queue. "I won't be going up to the pedestal."
"It supposedly gives visions?" Ryouko asked, quoting the informational guide she had read about the Ribbon.
"Rarely," Patricia said. "Just often enough to keep people coming. And they're pretty interesting visions, in the sense that they don't show up on memory traces or in the records of anyone's internal implants. If it weren't for the girls talking about it, they might as well have never happened."
"You sound rather skeptical for a Cult member," Ryouko pointed out.
"I'm just saying how it is," Patricia said, putting up her hands. "Personally, I think they're real, but I want to point out all the dodgy bits."
"I saw my dead friend," Asaka said sharply.
They turned to look at her. She looked back, eyes severe.
"That's all I'm going to say," she finished, obviously making the effort to keep her face passive.
"That's all she ever says," Patricia commented, ignoring Asaka's reproving tone of voice.
She looked at Ryouko.
"I've been in this Cult practically since I contracted, but I never got anything out of visiting the thing," she said. "Chances are good that you won't, either. And then you'll think we're all a bunch of crazy fanatics."
"We recruit among new girls, that's true," she said. "But we only really try for the ones whose psychological profiles suggest they'd be receptive. For girls like you, who aren't, it's better to wait, until you've seen a bit of what's to come. It raises the chances."
The line shifted forward by about five feet, and they stepped forward. They were now next in line, facing the two silent guards, and the empty space in between them that Ryouko didn't quite dare to step into.
"That's a rather… cold‐blooded conversion strategy," Ryouko commented.
"So it is," Patricia said.
She smiled slightly.
"Though you know. Maybe I'm being pessimistic. A girl like you, maybe you'll see something, like Asaka did."
I don't know why I'm here, Ryouko thought to Patricia, privately. She was in the middle of giving me a tour, I asked a few questions, then suddenly she insisted we come here.
She paused to consider her next thought.
I thought there'd be something to it, but if what you say is true, it's not that important.
Yes, it is strange, Patricia thought. Like I said, active evangelism is not something we do with most recruits, and it's certainly not like her. But we'll find out soon enough. She has her reasons, I'm sure.
Asaka gave them both an annoyed look that said "I know you two are talking behind my back."
Have you known her long? Ryouko asked.
Ever since she contracted, Patricia thought. We were in the same recruit pool. More importantly, we were in the same training squad. Spring 2446, Mars Training Grounds, Lambda‐Delta. You can look us up if you want. There's a fifty‐fifty chance you'll end up in the same place. That, or New Athens.
I see, Ryouko thought, secretly proud that, for once, she already knew that. It had been a lot of reading.
She always made fun of me for joining a crazy cult like this, Patricia thought. Before her vision, anyway. It's always bothered me a little that she won't talk about what she saw. Alice was my friend, too! But I don't push her on it. It's… personal to her.
Ryouko nodded, then realized she was supposed to think the agreement.
Asaka cleared her throat.
"We are next," she said, gesturing at the empty space in front of them, between the two guards.
"I'm just here to accompany them," Patricia said amiably, stepping to one side.
"Wait at the exit," the guard said, pointing at a back corner of the room.
Ryouko couldn't help but think that the guard's ornate, garish golden hat would be a liability in combat, but, then again, none of the costumes any of them had were particularly inconspicuous.
Out of curiosity, she scanned the guard's face.
Ryouko's mouth twitched.
"I happen to like the hat, thank you very much," the guard said, tilting her head and smiling at Ryouko. "Got to be more careful about your thoughts around those like us."
"Ah, sure," Ryouko said, embarrassed.
Next to her, Asaka took a deep breath, then transformed, bands of violet light lacing out of the ring on her finger, crystallizing in a round gem set into her right forearm. A pair of holstered daggers appeared at her waist.
Taking the cue, Ryouko followed suit.
"You may pass," the guard said, formal again.
The air next to her shimmered briefly. Ryouko couldn't help but be a little wary stepping through the barrier, but nothing happened, of course.
It's been a long time since I've been here, Asaka thought, as they stepped forward. After the first time, I kept coming back, but it never happened again. I stopped coming.
What is this about, Asaka‐san? Ryouko thought, trying one last time. Why are you being so mysterious?
Asaka shook her head one more time.
You know what's interesting? Asaka thought, dropping to a prayer pose in front of the pedestal. No one has ever reported seeing the face of the Goddess. In fact, getting contact with her personally is the rarest of all possible visions. Only a few have gotten even a glimpse of her, and never the face. Even Kyouko‐san hasn't gotten to see what she looks like. We've never convinced Mami‐san to come here. Only Homura knows…
Ryouko followed suit, kneeling down, but unlike Asaka, she took a moment to look up at the Ribbon, in its transparent case.
Whoever had designed this part of the building had earned their money. The light through the stained glass wall contrived to create an eerie lighting effect throughout the whole area, which for Ryouko was heightened by a few unfamiliar frequencies, or so she suspected. From where she was, the pedestal in front of her appeared bright on the right and shaded on the left.
But the Ribbon itself, on its little pillow, looked like just a ribbon, laid out straight. Possibly the only unusual thing about it might have been how new it looked, given its age, but that was hardly the kind of thing to inspire awe.
What are you trying to say, Asaka? Ryouko asked, but the girl had her eyes closed, deep in what she assumed to be prayer.
Ryouko closed her own eyes, wondering what this all was, waiting for the five minutes to pass.
Frowning, she checked her internal chronometer and found… emptiness. She had no idea what time it was.
Her eyes snapped open, and she looked around in panic.
The room was empty.
She tried to stand up.
A red apparition appeared in front of her, among what she realized were old‐fashioned church pews. It was a child, almost transparent, one who looked familiar—
She was hit by a blast of vertigo. The world spun around her and she felt herself falling…
Her eyes snapped open again, even though she hadn't closed them, and she found herself looking at a ribbon in her hand. The Ribbon.
Suddenly she understood.
A vision. It was actually happening.
She looked up.
She was in a secluded alleyway, but not the type she was used to. The ground had debris, and was paved with a black material she was unfamiliar with.
The past? she thought.
Before her, she saw a girl lying on the floor, another girl weeping over the other. They were magical girls, and the one on the floor was clad in heavily‐bloodstained white, a crumpled white hat lying at her side until it wasn't, gone in a flash of light. In her hand were the shattered remains of a soul gem.
Ryouko stepped forward warily, wondering if she should try to get the attention of the girl on top. She looked young—though Ryouko knew that meant nothing for magical girls—and she wore green. At her side, on the ground, lay a giant scepter, very large, almost as it were intended as a hammer—
Ryouko's eyes widened. She knew who she was looking at.
This doesn't make sense! she thought.
She stopped, realizing that she was now standing directly over the two of them. She held her breath, panicked that Yuma would look up and see her.
Yuma looked up, and Ryouko almost tripped over her own feet.
"I'm so sorry," she stammered, stumbling backward. "I–I—"
She stopped. The girl was looking right through her. She couldn't see her.
Ryouko turned and looked behind her.
A demon loomed over the entrance to the alleyway.
"I'm a monster," Yuma said, childish voice cracked, and Ryouko knew, somehow, that this Yuma was showing every year of her age—and there wasn't much to show.
Ryouko turned to look at Yuma again, feeling that she should look despite the imminent demonic threat behind her.
"They were right all along," the girl repeated softly. "I'm just as much a monster as they are. If that's true, then what right do I have to live?"
Ryouko opened her mouth, planning to say something, but froze when the girl looked up again.
Her soul gem swirled dark and black, and the look on her face was one of utter insanity.
Yuma's scepter disappeared and rematerialized in her hand, and, still smiling insanely, the girl lunged straight at Ryouko, so fast that even her hyperfast transformed reflexes didn't respond in time.
Ryouko felt a gust of wind, and realized that Yuma had lunged right through her, at the demon behind her. She wasn't really there. She was only an observer.
And then a movement caught her eye.
Ryouko looked down, at the dead magical girl. Had the corpse… moved?
She couldn't tell, but she had the disturbing feeling that the dead girl was watching her, somehow.
She took a step backward, involuntarily, but found no ground behind her. Instead she was falling into a void—
—and her eyes snapped open, and for some reason, she was screaming, and she was looking up at the impassive eyes of two men, immensely large, wearing the universal blue of hospital staff. They looked distorted, almost as if she were looking at them through glass.
She raised her hand, and it was wet. She was in some sort of fluid, and when she pressed her hand forward, she contacted glass. It really was glass, or perhaps plastic. She was in some sort of tank. And her hand seemed strangely shaped, and difficult to move.
Then she started to sink downward, the fluid draining…
She was briefly disoriented, dazzled by a bright light in her eyes, which she blinked furiously to get rid of.
"—and she's not just any transfer student!" said a voice to her left which she recognized, improbably, as her homeroom teacher. "She's foreign exchange, as you may have guessed. Go ahead, introduce yourself!"
Looking out over the expectant faces of the students in front of her, she felt an embarrassed tightening in her stomach. This was her own homeroom classroom, and she was being introduced as a foreign student? She obviously couldn't say "Shizuki Ryouko." But then—
Her lips moved on her own, and she realized she wasn't in control of her motions.
"I am Simona Del Mago," she said, bowing, hearing herself speak in the slightly accented Japanese that Simona had used on first arrival. "I am pleased to meet you. Ah, well, just to be clear, Simona is my personal name. Del Mago is my surname."
And then she turned her head, and Ryouko found herself looking straight into her own eyes. The eyes of a girl seated in the third row, in front of the empty seat reserved for the new Simona.
If Ryouko could have flinched or gasped, she would have.
As she watched, filled with a queasy sense of surrealism, Shizuki Ryouko shifted nervously in her seat, glancing around behind her to see if, perhaps, the new girl were looking at someone behind her.
But no. Simona was looking directly at her. She stared at the girl's—her own—pointlessly long hair and thought to herself: My friends were right, I really do look like a kid.
This scene was a perfect recreation of Simona's first day at their school. But why was she being shown this?
As the Ryouko in front of her turned her head forward again, tilting it in slight confusion, the world began to fade, the classmates, the walls, everything disappearing in a sea of white…
When she opened her eyes again—again, despite the fact that she had never closed them—she found herself in a white, white world. There was nothing there, except a lone park bench in front of her, and two girls talking.
It took her a moment to recognize that one of them was a younger Asaka, and the other a foreigner, definitely of the type that might be named "Alice".
She tried to lunge forward, and found she couldn't. She was frozen still.
"Alice" pointed suddenly at something, and Asaka looked and then, with wide eyes, fell forward out of the bench, kneeling on the floor.
Her friend urged her to stand back up, and finally, she did so, head still bowed.
Ryouko felt her head turning and saw what had prompted her reaction.
A white apparition, in the form of an adult woman, but still looking childish, somehow. She wore a flowing dress, and her enormously‐long ghostly hair wove behind her, strangely tinted slightly… pink?
Once again, Ryouko realized who she was looking at: the inspiration for the stained glass design in the church, the woman whose face no one had ever seen and, indeed, she couldn't see now.
The apparition spoke to Asaka, who nodded in awe, head still bowed.
The apparition pointed, and Asaka turned to look, and there, in the distance, was an image of a purple magical girl, pointing at the sky with a composite bow. This girl Ryouko knew very well. It was her own memory.
A moment later, the image disappeared, and so did the other two girls, and there was only the apparition, who started to turn—
And looked at her, and suddenly Ryouko could see it all, her shockingly pink hair, the white robes, the gems in her collar, those golden eyes, and achingly familiar face.
I told her to keep silent, and wait for the sign, the voice echoed in her mind, again strangely familiar. She did that very well, and now you are here. Please, tell no one you saw me.
The Goddess put a single gloved finger to her mouth in a gesture of silence, and winked, and Ryouko felt herself falling again…
Damn it, I know you're under attack! Kyouko's voice screamed into Ryouko's head, causing her to startle.
She was prone on the ground in a grove of trees, near the edge of a cliff. Below, an ocean roared. She was surrounded by other magical girls, in similar positions. In the background she could hear explosions, and some sort of strange buzzing noise.
Above her head and on the ground, countless tiny mechanical drones, and a few larger ones, went about their business, flying towards their rear, towards the explosions.
She looked up, and saw a girl next to her struggling with something, others holding grief cubes up to the gem in the girl's hand, and only then did Ryouko notice the constant rain of projectiles and beams heading towards them, all deflecting away at the last minute from some sort of invisible barrier.
The rain grew more intense, and the girl next to her clenched her teeth.
Then, Ryouko turned to look rightward, and saw Kyouko, face tense.
It's nothing compared to this! Everyone is under attack! Kyouko thought, clearly under enough pressure that she was letting the thoughts leak to everyone in the vicinity. Someone told them we were coming, and they have weapons they shouldn't have! I don't care what you're doing, we need the evac! We're losing our drones fast! This landing has gone to hell! Get your asses back here! Haven't you heard of operations under fire?
They're here! someone in the group thought.
As a group, they all looked up, and Ryouko followed their example, even though she had no idea what she was supposed to be looking at.
In the ocean below them, a flotilla of submarines was surfacing. A few of them were firing weapons into the water, at unseen enemies, but most raised gun barrels toward the sky, water droplets bursting away as if repelled.
In unison, they opened fire.
Go! Go! Kyouko ordered, standing and urging the rest forward with her.
All up and down the cliff, girls began diving off into the ocean, using whatever powers they or others had to moderate the landing, heading for the submarines, and what was apparently escape.
The girls around Ryouko lunged forward, and she did so as well, not sure what else she was supposed to do.
She felt a strange compulsion to turn and look, so she did so.
Kyouko was still standing, screaming both in thought and voice to move, move!, urging the others forward.
Then an explosion, and a fireball, where she had been standing.
"Kyouko!" Ryouko screamed, despite realizing on some level that none of this was real, that it was all a vision.
She teleported forward, and crouched by the body, mangled and dead, upper half missing entirely.
And the shield above them was still intact, but the cliffside was broken, which meant she had been blasted apart not by enemy fire, but by a misfiring shell from one of the submarines impacting the cliffside.
Those idiots! Maki yelled, appearing at Ryouko's side. Where's her soul gem? Is it okay? A submarine projectile shouldn't be able to damage the protection—
No sign of it, Ryouko thought. She keeps her soul gem on her chest, so…
"No! No!" the girl screamed, starting to cry on the spot. "I can't feel her gem! She's dead! I can't believe it!"
"Are you sure?" Ryouko shouted, making herself heard. "How—"
A wave of dismay spread outward, as the girls around them realized what had happened, despite their focus on retreat.
"Why the hell did we come here anyway?" the girl yelled. "I'll kill those bastards! They'll die, and whoever tipped them off, I'll hunt them down, and I'll kill them. I, I—"
The girl fell silent, standing up unsteadily, two swords manifesting in her hands.
"I never even got to—" she began, sucking in a sob.
The girl started to walk forward, away from the cliff, towards the enemy. Ryouko finally noted the darkness that had appeared in the girl's gem, its crossed blue shape swirling with growing darkness.
"No you won't," Asaka said, purple bubble appearing next to them and popping open.
Before they had a chance to protest, the bubble reformed around them. Asaka was teleporting them, and several other girls—and the body, gruesome as it was—out of there.
Help me keep her under control, Asaka thought to the rest of them. Take her soul gem if you have to. I'm taking command here.
Maki began pounding the inside of the bubble with her sword, sending ripples through the purple fluid. She sobbed in rage, and struggled half‐heartedly with the girls that had appeared around her to pin her down.
Asaka's eyes were cold, but it was obvious that that was only a front. She was staying calm for their sake.
There'll be time to grieve later, she thought. I'm sorry. I'm… so sorry.
Ryouko started to step forward, when that familiar falling sensation returned and this time she knew, somehow, the vision was over.
She opened her eyes, gasping for breath. Next to her, Asaka turned and looked at her.
Ryouko checked her internal chronometer. Literally no time had passed.
"You saw something, didn't you?" Asaka asked. It wasn't really a question. A murmur was already starting to rise from the line behind them.
Ryouko nodded mutely.
Clarisse van Rossum watched Ryouko get up unsteadily, supported by an arm from Asaka. From her vantage point in the corner of the room, she was relatively inconspicuous, so not many noticed her.
"It actually happened," Patricia said, standing at her side. She had greeted the girl as she walked over. It was a coincidence.
"I'm less surprised than I should be," Patricia said, shaking her head.
"Some reason for that?" Clarisse asked.
Patricia shook her head again, this time as a refusal.
"You might hear about it later," the girl said. "The first thing, I'm not sure I should be talking to you about. The second, I need to think about it myself, and report to Kyouko. Actually, I probably can't talk about that one either."
"If you say so," Clarisse responded.
"There's also the fact that you're here," Patricia said. "Is this…?"
"If I wanted to be melodramatic, I'd say the tides of history are shifting," the woman said, having personally chosen a somewhat older 31‐year‐old body. "Something is up, anyway. I was wondering why my soul gem wanted me back in Mitakihara. I could easily have attended the Theological Council meeting virtually."
She held up her hand, looking at the ring in question, and the cog‐like symbol inscribed on her fingernail.
"I'll be seeing you," Patricia said, walking over towards the pedestal, waving with one hand.
"See you," Clarisse said.
She stood there just long enough to see the Incubator Kyubey materialize briefly on top of the box holding the Ribbon, drawing significant comment. The Incubator ignored questions, curled itself into a sleeping position on top of the box, then vanished again.
Clarisse turned and headed out through the side door. There was no more need to be here.
Her soul gem pulsed on her finger. It was time to head for the Euphratic front.