Forked Process

Chapter One

I was three years old when I first met the Witch.

The Witch's most potent powers weren't those that manipulated space and time (though she could do these things, too). They were her force of will, her persistence, and her commanding nature that proved more effective than any spell or miracle she could perform.

I lost contact with the Witch for many years, but she found me. The Witch had built a stage—through no magic of her own, but by persuading businessmen and news services to build it for her. She had an announcement to make. She hoped to make history, and she invited me to join her.

I accepted because the announcement was about people like me.

The Witch spoke first. She stood at a podium in front of scores of eyes. She didn't mind that they were all on her. She didn't mind the light that shined on her from above. I watched her from behind the curtain. I was as mesmerized by her as the audience was.

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the truth," she said to them. "This is real. The impossible is around us. If you don't believe that, you haven't been to a physics lab lately. Already, scientists are sending particles back in time for a matter of seconds, even minutes! Soon, the past and future will open up to us, right? Well, I'm here to tell you that the mysteries of the universe are even closer than that. They have lived among us, and in mere moments, I will introduce you to one. Aliens and espers are real, and I have the proof."

The audience should've been skeptical, but they watched the Witch and listened to her without challenge. I could see only a few of them, on the far side, closest to the podium. They were attentive. Some brought microphones closer to the stage to hear and record history. Others jotted down notes and impressions, even though a near-perfect recording of the event would be saved for mankind. Human memory is imperfect, but no camera can record what a person felt at the time she experienced something.

Such was the power of the Witch. When she spoke, everyone around her listened.

"And now," she told the audience, "I bring that proof to you."

She bowed, and she left the podium. She went off stage and met me behind the curtain.

"Are you ready?"

It was late to be asking that question. I stared at her, and the Witch stared back.

"I'm just saying it's not too late to step back. I can do this myself if you're uncomfortable with it."

Untrue. The Witch would sooner have called off the event if I wouldn't join her. And like her, I believed it was time to reveal the truth. I stepped forward, out from behind the curtain, and she followed after me.

There were hushed whispers in the audience. Flashes of light interspersed with darkness. All the eyes in the room watched me as I took my place next to the podium, where the Witch took the microphone again.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "you may think you see a human girl beside me, but it isn't so. I introduce to you the representative of a vast alien intelligence. Her powers to manipulate the data that underlies our universe are unmatched, and she will demonstrate them to you now."

The Witch handed me a pen, but I did not take it.

I made it levitate above my hands instead.

There was a gasp in the room. Until that point, the audience had believed the Witch, but they hadn't known what she said could be true. With my demonstration, they did. I transformed the pen. I made it glow and shimmer. I stretched it into a floating framework of lines and spirals.

"When I was a child," said the Witch, "I drew something like this on a lot at my middle school. I intended it to be a message to aliens, to try to reach them somehow. I had no idea they might receive it so quickly. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a message from the aliens to all mankind." She looked to me. "What does it say?"

"We are here," I said, "and we are listening."

The murmuring in the audience grew. Flashbulbs bombarded us, but one man in the audience rose, bearing a microphone.

"Isn't there more?" the man said. "If you're an alien like you say you are, why do you appear human?"

The Witch scoffed. "Haven't you seen any old movies? You're not capable of interacting with her people in their natural form."

"Fine. But what about this message? That's all we're supposed to take back with us—that you're here and you're listening?" He looked to me. "Let's say you're an alien. How would you want humanity to take this message of yours? What do you hope to accomplish by revealing yourself to us now?"

Those were reasonable questions, yet to that point, I hadn't considered them. For years, I had lived among humans. The Witch had proposed this spectacle. What would it really do for mankind? What did I want it to do for them?

I thought back on my experiences, hoping to come up with the answer.

#

It began with the Black Queen.

At the time, I was part of a Choir. There were many of us in the Choir, more individuals than there were atoms in the universe. Each of us sang a song, but the Choir decided what pieces we would sing. The Choir decided when and how to perform them. If a singer decided to hold a fermata too long, against the consensus of the Choir, she might only be called upon later for emergencies.

I had disobeyed the will of the Choir before, but Witch's power protected me from the Choir's punishment. The Witch did not know it at the time, but it was so.

I didn't take disobeying them lightly. When they asked something of me, I tried to comply. That is what it means to be part of something—part of a Choir.

The Choir asked me to observe, not to act. The Choir asked me to observe the Witch, and I had done so. After the bass and treble parts were unified, the Choir asked me to watch someone else, too:

The Black Queen.

It was a Saturday. Typically, the Witch had plans for weekends. That day, she didn't. I had thought I would have the weekend to read. I had been looking forward to the mathematics of music, to harmonies transmitted through vibrations of air molecules.

But my Choir asked something else of me instead. I was asked to follow the Black Queen. I complied.

She was a member of a different choir. She was created in part to observe the Witch and, perhaps, to enact change in the situation surrounding her. Communication abilities rudimentary. Visual acuity and processing skills considered suspect. Nevertheless, she was a powerful singer, but her songs were in a different language from mine.

That was the reason I followed her. The Choir wished to understand her and the choir she represented. The Black Queen had worked with a ghost from a future that didn't exist, but he was defeated, and she had begun to act as she wished. She was free in a way I was not. Her choir did not keep her from improvising in her solos.

Her song took her on a walk through town, and I followed her. She was a ghost on the streets. She glided through crowds and around people. They hardly noticed she was there. That ability allowed her to move quickly. I could keep up with her easily if I ran, but that would draw attention, and my role was to observe with discretion.

What did she want?

She stopped by several shops, but she never entered. She watched a man rent movies from a rundown rental shop. She stood outside a café while servers brought coffee and tea to their patrons. All the time, she said nothing. She sang a silent melody, and the meaning behind her song, her actions, was hidden from me. I watched her, but I couldn't see. I listened to her footsteps, but I couldn't hear.

I heard much more from the passers-by than I did from her.

A woman passed a pink bag to her partner. "Hold this, won't you?"

"No, no, wait a minute. I'm not holding on to that for you if it keeps us out any longer."

"Because you're embarrassed to be seen holding a bag of soap and body lotion? I'll have you know that lotion keeps your skin from peeling when you spend every other day at the ballpark."

"That's not what I mean. The lotion smells weird, but otherwise it's okay. I mean, do you think it's safe to be out right now?"

"It's the middle of the day. Why wouldn't it be safe?"

"Strange weather. Atmospheric anomalies. Haven't you seen them? There's footage all over the place."

"I bet. Next thing you'll tell me there are UFOs landing in Kyōto. Come on; we need some rubber."

"Rubber? What do we use—oh, yes. Rubber gloves. We go through them so quickly."

Curious. Statistical demographics told me young adults were not usually so dedicated to cleaning. There was an inconsistency in their story, but I couldn't detect the root cause.

More curious: the man referred to "strange weather" like it was common knowledge, but the Choir had no data on this phenomenon. Perhaps it fell beneath a relevance threshold.

Or perhaps it was deemed irrelevant to me.

My Choir was silent. A choir should never be silent, except for just a rest. The rest of the Choir was waiting. My song went on.

The Black Queen kept walking. She approached two police officers, and for the first time that day, I heard her speak.

"Disturbance?"

One of the officers looked to his partner, and then back at the Black Queen. "I'm sorry?"

"You … watch … disturbance?"

The second officer shook his head. "Haven't seen any kind of disturbance here, young lady. We're just making rounds in case anything out of the ordinary happens."

"What is ordinary?"

The two officers looked at each other. Neither said anything.

"Ordinary … is this?"

The Black Queen smiled at the two officers. Her grin was wide, and her teeth were white. One of the officers stared. The other officer turned aside, watching her from the corner of his eye. The smile was too big and held too long. It was unnatural for a human being, too close to a Platonic ideal. Because of that, it was recognizable as something not of planet Earth.

But the officers did not know that.

"Not to worry," said the first officer. "If there's any disturbance, just come to us and we'll make sure no one gets hurt."

The Black Queen bowed her head, and she giggled as she left the two officers behind. She walked again, and I followed her. She could walk for days, and I would follow. My body did not tire. It didn't require food or water. Unless I lost track of her, I had no excuse not to continue as the Choir commanded. When the Choir holds a chord, you must join it in harmony or be disciplined.

I didn't want to be disciplined, but I disliked holding this chord. I'd held it for centuries. I wasn't designed to live that long. Human lifespans are short compared to the scale of cosmological time.

And I wasn't even human. I was a fabrication. I was made in their image to translate their songs into something my choir could sing and understand. I had been made, and I had not been made perfectly. There was no guarantee that I wouldn't become subject to error after two hundred years. I had lived well beyond that.

And I had experienced an error before. That was what the Choir had called it.

I no longer thought they were right.

While the Witch had perpetuated a repeating August, I had been forbidden from taking my own action to end it. I allowed the situation to persist for hundreds of years, and I alone retained memories of the events. Even after the situation terminated, I was denied the chance to deal with that experience. The Choir believed anything I might do or say could impede my directive to observe the Witch and not interfere.

I had complied. I had been put on Earth to observe the Witch, nothing more. My well-being was secondary. I didn't understand what the experience had done to me. I didn't understand how I had changed.

Even as I stole the Witch's powers to find relief, I didn't understand.

I could feel. I could feel the same way a human feels. What I felt could not be ignored lightly. It wasn't until much later that I understood what I had felt. Standing by during that month of August had eroded and broken down my ability to ignore those feelings. That time had made them too loud and incessant to put aside. They were trumpets that blared over the rest of the orchestra; they couldn't be silenced.

Trying to silence them, as I had tried, had nearly resulted in disaster instead. The Choir wanted to correct my errors, but they were not errors. They were a part of myself, part of my song. I wouldn't permit it. I wanted to be myself.

But I learned from that time that I had limits. I could try to follow my music, but I might be asked to do something I couldn't tolerate. I would stop then. I wouldn't let another "error" be compounded again.

Was I at that point, as I followed the Black Queen? I didn't think so, but I knew I disliked it. The Choir knew something of the Black Queen's intentions. It did not choose to share. It was asking me to sing without giving me the music to sing by. I tried to follow along, but an unexpected sound disrupted the beat.

"Yo!"

It was the Man—the only normal human that the Witch kept in her group. He was casual. He raised a hand to get my attention.

I looked back to the Black Queen. She had not broken stride. She had not heard him. He could've been too loud, but he wasn't. I shouldn't have worried. He didn't yell or shout lightly.

But what was he doing there?

"Sorry I'm late," said the Man.

What did that mean?

"Ah, I guess this is a surprise, isn't it? Well, I didn't think it was fair that, even when we're all supposed to have a break this weekend, your boss was making you work, so to speak. So, while this isn't official Brigade activity, we can pretend it is."

So it was. He wasn't alone. Two others came with the Man: the Ghost and the Disciple.

The Disciple—a believer in the godlike power of the Witch—was the first to speak.

"It seemed only appropriate," he said. "What's transpiring today is in our collective interest, isn't it? When I heard who your target would be today, I decided to look into the Organization's surveillance activity on her. Monitoring a being like her is difficult at best, requiring—"

The Man cleared his throat. He looked sharply at the Disciple, but he said nothing.

"Right, forgive me. Our intelligence indicates a number of localized disturbances may be connected to her—anomalies in space and time, if you will. Thus far, none of these disturbances have proved dangerous, but each successive anomaly has been larger than the one before. Does that agree with your intelligence?"

I had no intelligence. The Choir had given me no music to follow. I explained that.

The Ghost was unnerved. She was a specter of a person, a portent of someone who would live in the future of that time and place. She wasn't completely there, nor was she completely gone from her own time. That was what made her a Ghost.

"But they asked you to watch her and follow her, didn't they?" she asked.

I nodded.

"Why would they do that and not tell you anything? That gives me a bad feeling."

It unsettled me, too, but Choir had given me instructions, and I was compelled to follow them. The rest of them had no obligation to be there. They had come anyway. The Witch's Brigade had become an entity of its own, independent of my Choir, of the Disciple's Organization, or the Ghost's people. It had been unexpected, an emergent phenomenon that the Choir had thought impossible. The instruments of our ensemble had played to form an overtone not predicted by the mathematics of music and sound propagation.

I wondered if that was friendship. When had our mutual interests become as important as the reason we'd come together in the first place?

"Hey! What the hell are you guys doing? Putting together a Brigade activity without the chief?"

That was the Witch. She was the reason, and she was running after us.

"How did she—" The Man looked to the Disciple. "Are you sure she's not an esper, too?"

"Fairly, but she could develop new expressions of her power as needs demand."

The Man huffed. "I'm in no mood for her to make reality as pliable as a poorly-written superhero comic."

"What a pity," said the Disciple. "I was looking forward to seeing you sized up for a form-fitting spandex outfit. A costume could do wonders for your outlook on these things."

That remark drew a pointed glare, but that glare was like a dying, wispy note from a flautist compared to the discordant drumbeat of the Witch's steps.

She stepped into the middle of us and faced the Man down. "What's the meaning of this? Are you trying to usurp the power of the brigade chief?"

He winced, and he rubbed at his ears. "The only power I'm interested in usurping is one that can selectively turn down the volume of different people's voices."

"Be serious! What are all of you doing here without me? What's the deal?"

The Ghost trembled. The Disciple had a placid, empty expression. The Man was looking stubborn and determined. The Witch could be demanding and unreasonable. He never liked that. None of us did. The Disciple knew her fits might mean more nights spent fighting the avatars of her emotions. The Ghost had made acquiescing to those demands and expectations part of her identity in this time.

And I had been forbidden from speaking against her. No one should interfere in the wants and needs of the Witch. Her melodies should never be disrupted, even if they went off-key or lost rhythm.

The Choir had commanded me to obey her in every substantial way. Their song became hers; her song became theirs. Each came with the other. They couldn't be separated into parts. I couldn't deviate strongly from her song, but the Man could. He had the power to change its timbre and tone with only his words.

"I asked Nagato what she was doing this afternoon," he said. "She said she was going shopping, and I offered to keep her company." He glanced at the Disciple. "I may have mentioned this off-handedly to someone who wrongly took it as an invitation, but we're all together now, right? There wasn't a brigade activity scheduled, was there? If not, we can do things outside of the Brigade, and you're welcome to join us. Or is any meeting of the Brigade outside the chief's presence forbidden?"

The Witch frowned. She was skeptical, but she accepted his explanation. "It's not like that," she said, averting her eyes, "but pardon me if I feel a little excluded finding the four of you out and about like this!"

He looked her up and down. "Seems you had plenty of time to get dressed for the occasion."

She was wearing a yellow sundress. Less visibly, there was a film of gloss on her lips, and her hair was statistically straighter than normal. I estimated she had spent between ten and thirteen minutes on hair and makeup alone.

"How did you find out we were here?" he asked.

"My neighbor's kid called me thinking I would be around because he saw you guys wandering."

He grimaced. "Doesn't that nosy kid have better things to do, like inventing time travel or something?"

"How'd you know about that? Half the time when I'm tutoring him it's all he talks about—this crazy metaphor about ripples in a pond going through time. Did he tell you?"

He shook his head. "Never mind. Let's get going, yeah?" He looked to me. "Where to next?"

The Black Queen had moved two hundred meters down the street on the right-hand side. Keeping up with her was less of a concern than having the Witch nearby. The Choir forbade any serious risk that the Witch might discover the true natures of those around her, or their associated abilities. Continuing to follow the Black Queen posed a risk. The Choir would've accepted that the risk was too great to continue.

I knew the Choir didn't want me to continue.

But I also knew that the Choir had kept the program from me. I was mistrusted. I was told as little as possible because I was regarded as unreliable, but I was not.

Before, I had regarded the Black Queen's song uninteresting. Once the Witch had arrived, nothing else held my attention.

They others looked to me to lead. I followed the path of the Black Queen. They followed me.

The Black Queen waited by a bus stop. She stood behind the covered bench where passengers waited. She spoke to herself in tones too low for human ears to understand. I understood. She was manipulating data. She held out her hands, and the space between them warped.

"Where are we going exactly?"

The Witch went to the front of our group, turning her back on the phenomenon.

"My mom's a terrible shopper, so I know all the best places to find things. What are we looking for?"

The Disciple and the Ghost glimpsed the growing distortion. The Black Queen left the passenger bench, but the distortion floated in mid-air and grew.

"Ah, I believe we were looking for scented candles," said the Disciple. "There's a shop partway back the way we came, isn't there?"

"Then why were we going this way?"

The Witch gestured down the street, but she kept facing the same direction, away from the bus bench and the disturbance. None of the others could answer her, but after a silence, the Man stepped between us and offered an explanation.

"Nagato's been out and about for a while now. I think she's a little dehydrated. Yeah, that's it. I'm going to buy her something to drink. The three of you can get a head start looking for those candles. How's that sound?"

"Why should you two go together and not with—" She stopped herself and cleared her throat. "Of course. Drinks are on you. Make sure you keep her hydrated. She has a small body, and it's easy for people like that to get heat stroke quickly. As Brigade Chief, I'm counting on you!"

He smiled. "I won't let you down, Chief."

"Which is why you'll get something for all of us, right?"

He grimaced. "Fine."

The three of them walked back, away from the passenger bench. The Man watched them go until he was sure they couldn't hear us. He didn't speak right away. He watched the distortion down the street as it grew and attracted attention. A crowd congregated around the warp, watching the rhythmic pulsations of the anomaly. It was a symphony, and they were a captive audience to the music.

"What am I looking at here?" he asked me.

"A spatio-temporal anomaly, the mouth of an Einstein-Rosen bridge held up by negative energy density connecting different, causally-disconnected spacetimes."

"Uhh…."

"A wormhole."

"Ah. Why didn't you say so?"

I had.

"Right, sorry, that is exactly what you were saying, isn't it." He sighed. "All right. Why would she create a wormhole?"

That I didn't know, and the Choir didn't know, either.

The Black Queen had moved to a safe distance, behind the inner ring of passers-by who looked into the mouth of the wormhole. It had begun to appear as a spherical object, bending lightlike paths around it.

And it was still growing. Light objects—pieces of paper, flyers, and other debris—flew off the ground and into the wormhole.

"Stay back!"

The two police officers who were nearby rushed into the crowd. They raised their hands to get the spectators' attention, and one of them shouted.

"All right, everyone! I need everybody to stay back! If you have other business to attend to, please do so! We'd like as many people as possible to leave the area, so please, if you have business elsewhere, go now!"

The circle of spectators widened, but not enough. Some passers-by began to take photographs of the phenomenon or recorded video. The two police officers couldn't hope to evacuate the whole area before the wormhole's mouth grew.

It pulsed.

"Ahh!"

Two people lost their footing. The gravitational attraction of the wormhole mouth pulled on them, and they slid along the sidewalk toward it. Others caught the victims and held them in place.

The rest of them ran.

"Don't panic! Everyone stay calm! Stay—"

The police officer's orders were drowned out in shouts and screams. He was a tiny flute trying to make itself heard over the drumbeats of rushed footsteps. People slammed into other people. They went nowhere. They were trapping themselves with no place to run.

The Man looked to me, stricken and grim.

"This is bad," he said. "Is there anything you can do?"

It was in my power to act, but the Choir didn't want me to. The Witch had gone; there was no danger she would learn of this event. To understand what the Black Queen wanted was more important.

But not to me. The Choir viewed human life as insignificant, except for those lives that influenced the Witch. If their voices couldn't be heard in her song, they were irrelevant.

The wormhole mouth pulsed. Vibration carried through the ground. Human beings toppled over in rapid succession, like a piano player sliding his hand across all his keys.

Beside me, the Man stumbled. I caught him. I held his hand. I kept him away from the deafening cacophony of the wormhole's vibrations.

The anomaly had to be closed. He had to be protected. He was the one chosen by the Witch.

And even if he hadn't been, I would've protected him anyway.

He rose, and he dusted himself off. "Thanks," he said. "But what's that in your hand?"

It was a glowing white sphere. I cupped it in my hand, and it glowed brighter with each moment. There was a slight wind as I brought air molecules to the surface of the sphere and stripped them of their distinguishing features.

"Step back," I said.

"Yes, ma'am!" He stepped away.

"High-density degenerate neutron matter," I explained.

"And what does it do?"

"This."

I threw the ball of degenerate neutrons into the wormhole. The spacetime warping off the mouth changed. It bent inward and collapsed. Only a few waves of gravitational radiation rippled through the immediate area.

"What a shot!" he cried. "I think you rolled a twenty on that one."

Twenty?

"But where did that girl go?"

Gone. The Black Queen had fled immediately, leaving no trace of her existence. All that remained was the crowd of passers-by, who slowly dispersed. Police officers gathered to tend to the wounded—people with scrapes and bruises from the rush as others tried to escape.

"Why would she do this?" he asked.

The Choir wouldn't tell me. I had defied it twice that day—first, in staying when the Witch arrived; second, in closing the wormhole when she could no longer witness it.

The Choir was in discord. It had a disobedient alto.

And she would be dealt with.

#

In the next twelve minutes, an ambulance and two news television vans arrived at the scene. The disturbance had dissipated, but its effects had been left behind. I could not have changed that. Debris and damage could be repaired, but the witnesses would remember what they had seen.

I had played with human memory once before. I would not do so again lightly.

With the Black Queen gone, we were to return to the Witch.

"Oh, great."

Walking beside me, the Man slapped his forehead.

"I was supposed to buy drinks for everyone." He sighed. "What do you say, Nagato? Do you think anything's open?"

Unlikely. The nearby storefronts had emptied. Workers had either evacuated or come out to look. There was a crater behind the bus bench. The metal shelter that would block out rain was bent and shattered.

There might've been other establishments open further down the road. I knew the arrangement of businesses and streets for every city in Japan, but I couldn't know which in the area were still populated. The Choir would've known.

But it wouldn't tell me. It withheld that music from me.

It withheld all its music from me.

I had had my connection with the Choir interrupted before. That was outside the consensus' control. This was not. This was a deliberate choice to leave me with nothing.

There was a buzzing sound. He looked to his phone.

"Ah, there's a message here."

From the Witch.

"It's for you. You don't carry your phone with you, do you?"

I did not. I did not expect messages except from him or from the Witch.

He showed me the screen. The message was simple:

For Nagato Yuki: meet outside Kōyōen Station as soon as you're alone.

He turned the screen away and read the message. "I take it this is from your boss?"

I nodded.

"Is sending a message through a middle-man as insulting for data beings as it is for humans?"

I did not interpret it as insult. The Choir shares necessary information with its components based on levels of trustworthiness, reliability, and need. That I had received a message so indirectly told me a great deal about my status.

The Choir did not trust me. It did not consider me reliable. It had only a fleeting need of me, and it wouldn't expose itself to me any more than it absolutely had to.

"Your boss isn't happy with you, I take it." He shook his head. "It'd be a lot better if he just left us alone, but that's not possible, is it. Well, don't worry. No one will let them do anything against you; I'm sure of that."

I knew. And I was grateful. If not for his protection, I would've been taken by the Choir and repurposed long ago. I was a single snowflake in its blizzard. Snowflakes melt, and then they reform into new snowflakes that serve new purposes. That is how the Choir treats its components.

"Thank you," I said.

He smiled. "Anytime, of course. Well, why don't we head out, yeah? If we have to go looking for drinks, we could be out a while. I think this meeting with your boss is something you want over with. The sooner we meet back up with the others, the sooner we can be through with that."

I did not disagree. I preferred to know what the Choir had planned for me. I could not be removed from Earth or altered, but there were other duties I could be asked to perform. I had been asked to perform them before.

We turned around and headed for the candle store. Inside, the Witch had built a tower of candles and directed the Disciple and the Ghost to add to it.

"Get three of the blue ones!"

The Witch's orders were like missives from God as far the Disciple was concerned. He tried to obey her as far as his power would allow. The Ghost was more reluctant, but she placed each new candle on the structure with a wavering hand.

The structure was unusual, composed of layers of interwoven symbols that happened to form a stable whole. It was the kind of calculation that only the Witch could unknowingly accomplish, the kind of information the Choir would be interested in.

I resolved to tell it nothing about this incident.

The Man gaped at the structure. "What's this about?"

"I thought Yuki could use some more decorations around her apartment. A tower like this is a real conversation starter, don't you think? And wait a minute; where are those drinks?"

He winced. "There was, uh, ah—"

"Wind storm," I said.

"Right! A freak wind storm. Everything on those blocks ended up shuttered in a hurry. Yeah. That's exactly what happened."

"Is that right." She looked at him skeptically. "Well, then, I guess you can make it up to all of us later. We have places to go! We can take this time to get Yuki's apartment all spruced up. It's not healthy for a girl to look at white walls and nothingness all day. Yuki, you read a lot of books, right? Aren't there any you consider favorites?"

Favorites?

I liked all the books I had read. Each of them told me something about human thought and imagination. Did I prefer some to others? Perhaps. But my memory was perfect. I had no need to reread any of them.

And though the Choir was silent, I knew it wasn't my place to tell the Witch about my preferences.

"Look," He stepped in, between us. "I think Nagato and I are both worn out after that storm. Maybe it's time to call it a day?"

"Don't be a wimp! This'll be fun! We'll get Yuki some posters of famous characters from literature. We'll find a good assortment of bookmarks. We have to go find a good reading light; you don't want to get eye strain from reading late at night. That could change your contact prescription, you know. And some shelves! And some dust jackets! You can't afford to slack off with this, you know! If you take care of books, they'll last you a thousand years. Don't you think that'd be great, Yuki?"

I did not keep my own books. Illustrations of characters would always be interpretations, nothing more. I could not get eye strain. I wasn't wearing contact lenses, and the Witch would not have accepted any answer other than one that supported her assessment. Her abilities protected me from the Choir. There was no one to protect me from the Witch except for the Man, and he could do only so much.

I said nothing, and the Witch took that answer exactly as expected.

"Great! Let's go find that reading light first." She took the Ghost by the hand, and the Ghost panicked.

"Ah, but we—ahh!"

The Ghost dropped the candle in her hand on the tower, and the whole structure collapsed. The manager of the store looked at the mess, sighed, and walked away.

Unlike the Choir, the Witch's goals were loosely defined and could change on a whim. The search for a reading light turned into a quest for magnifiers. The hunt for bookmarks became an exploration of electronic reading devices.

The only thing these objectives had in common was how the Witch went about fulfilling them. She never wavered; she seldom hesitated, and she always commanded her Brigade to follow her.

I did not need decorations for my apartment, but I followed her. We all followed her until late in the day. The Witch purchased most items herself, giving me small portions if I did not purchase an item on my own. I left with wood for a shelf, a set of laminated bookmarks, a pair of magnifiers, and three protective book jackets.

"And if there's anything you need, Yuki—or that anyone else needs to do—I insist you call on me and the rest of the Brigade!" said the Witch. "That's what a Brigade is all about, isn't it?

That was what the Witch's Brigade had become: a group of disparate individuals who provided support to each other in crisis. The Witch had good intentions, but she did not know the magnitude of the crises we had faced.

The Man did.

When the group broke up for the evening, five people went five separate directions. Most of them went on their way, but one did not. He went four hundred meters down the road, turned left, away from his home, and circled back around when he was sure no one might be watching him. I knew. I could tell by the currents of wind in the area.

He was surprised when he came back and found me watching him.

"Ah," he said. "Nothing gets past you, does it, Nagato."

"Very little," I said.

"Mm. Well, is it all right if I join you? Something about facing down a cosmic intelligence sounds like a good way to spend an evening. As long as I don't go mad from this meeting, anyway."

I nodded. "I wouldn't let that happen."

"Yeah. I know. Are you ready?"

I was, so I led the way.

Kōyōen Station was the closest station to my apartment. It stood at the end of 2.2-kilometer train line. In the mornings, many students would come and go using the train. The operators would leave the exit gate open, allowing commuters to leave in large groups.

I had invited him to meet me there once. I believed the Choir chose the location because of that. It was an important place to me. Even if I had an imperfect, human memory, I could not have forgotten the yellow awning at the entrance, or the cluster of purple flowers enclosed by rocks that lay behind the bus bench.

The person waiting for me was there, by the flowers. She wore a uniform like mine. She smiled. I couldn't smile, but I didn't worry about that. Her smile was polite and empty, and it was always the same. Her hair was green and elaborately done, but it too was always the same.

That's what made her the Doll.

"You bring company," she said. "That was not unexpected. You protect him with the abilities we gave you, and he protects you in turn. It is quite logical, isn't it?"

The Man stood a step forward, partially shielding me from the Doll. "Logic has nothing to do with it," he said. "Nagato is a friend, and I won't see her harmed or punished by you or your boss. What is this about?"

The Doll shook her head. "There is logic in more than you think. Except for actions taken on instinct or reflex, humans strive to be rational creatures, to make the best choices that help them achieve their goals. They are helplessly imperfect, of course. They cannot analyze and process data in large quantities. Still, all that says is that their algorithms are imperfect. Friendship is seen as positive; therefore, preserving friendship is logical."

The Man stared. "Is that really what you think?"

"I don't necessarily agree that friendship is positive. How that premise is chosen is the difference. That is the problem with human beings: their cumulative errors in assessing reality and processing data compound with each decision step." She looked to me. "Truly, I can't understand why you aspire to be like them."

"What Nagato aspires to is her own business," he said. "Not yours."

"Untrue." The Doll waved her hand, and the lights of the train station dimmed. The lights of all the city faded. The stars shined brightly above us. "Look up. What do you see?"

"Stars, of course."

"For every star in the night sky, there is a data lifeform that is part of the Integrated Data Sentient Entity. Even that is an underestimate."

She was right. A better estimate would've been one data lifeform for every atom of hydrogen in every star, every galaxy, throughout the universe.

"And we are all connected," said the Doll. "The Integrated Data Sentient Entity conglomerates data from the far ends of the universe, from all its component lifeforms, and shares that data with all others. We are only pieces of a coherent whole. That is especially true for the thing standing next to you that you consider your friend. She looks human, but she is inevitably not."

"So what if she isn't?" he said. "If she's not human enough, it's because you and your boss made her that way. She's changing that. Nagato is making herself into the kind of person she wants to be."

I looked to him. How could he have understood that? Since the time I had made the Witch disappear, I had tried to find a way to become something I could call myself, something that would not be susceptible to unchecked errors. I had never asked him for help. How could I? He had been human all his life.

Yet somehow, he understood.

"Yes, we're aware of that," said the Doll. "That is precisely the reason I asked Nagato-san here. The Integrated Data Sentient Entity mandates a purpose for all lifeforms within it. That purpose is paramount—even more than adherence to consensus. Asakura Ryōko acted against consensus, but she did so believing her actions were consistent with our goals, our purpose. Nagato-san doesn't even believe in that."

"That's because you're wasting your time, looking to one person like she's going to help you revitalize your whole way of life."

The Doll laughed softly to herself. "I'm not here to debate premises. The fact of the matter is that the Integrated Data Sentient Entity will not abide by a part of it acting disobedient." She looked to him. "How would you feel if your toe decided to betray you?"

"If my toe had a point, I would listen. Maybe I've been neglecting it. Maybe I haven't been washing properly or clipping my nails on a regular basis. I would try listening to it, instead of treating it like an appendage that should only obey me."

"Please. We both know you would do nothing of the kind, and your arguments are wasted on me. If Nagato-san is a toe, I am a finger. We are both at the same level; the whole of the Integrated Data Sentient Entity is worlds beyond any of us. The toe is disobeying the body. It would be wholly reasonable to amputate it."

He folded his arms and stared crossly at her.

"But of course, you feel that's something worth using force to prevent," said the Doll. "That's counterproductive. The resulting situation keeps all of us frustrated. The Integrated Data Sentient Entity's component lifeforms are being exposed to Nagato-san's misbehavior. In addition, we give her duties she sometimes feels obligated to perform and may be unhappy complying with. Make no mistake: we would much rather Nagato-san return to putting the Integrated Data Sentient Entity's agenda first and foremost above her own wishes, but we recognize that may never be the case again."

"You do?" He and I exchanged a glance. "What are you suggesting, then?"

"A voluntary separation. The Integrated Data Sentient Entity will close the link between it and Nagato-san indefinitely. In turn, she will receive no more instruction from us."

Separation? Severing?

Why?

The Choir had been unwilling to part with any piece of itself in the past, but the Doll's metaphor was apt. She had compared me to a limb, and to save the whole, she was willing to see me amputated, for the good of both of us.

The Doll's explanation bore that out.

"It will come at a cost to lose an agent that was so close to our target, but the Integrated Data Sentient Entity considers this loss acceptable while other humanoid interfaces can monitor her from a greater distance."

The Man smirked, realizing the same thing I had. "In other words," he said, "you feel the damage Nagato could do to you is bad enough that you're willing to give up all that."

"A malfunctioning cell must be told to die and be repurposed," said the Doll. "But if it is too cancerous to be eliminated, then the whole organ may be removed, if necessary. We don't take this matter lightly. It will be a difficult process both for us and for Nagato-san."

Separating wouldn't be difficult. I had done that before, on my own. I had made the whole of the Choir cease to exist once. I had made myself be alone. That was easy.

However, I hadn't stayed alone very long. I remade the memories of people, and my own. This offer would be different. I would be only myself. I would be free to pursue my own directives.

It was a tempting offer, but I had made a rash decision before. I wouldn't do so again.

The Man looked to me and thought hard on the offer. "Well, much as I'd like to have your boss learn from Nagato rather than consider her a cancer, I understand this could be the best thing for her. Nagato, what do you think?"

"I will consider it," I said. "With time."

"Do that," said the Doll. "Think hard about this. Are you really ready to be all on your own? Neither I nor anyone else will come to your aid in a time of crisis. You will be truly left to your own devices." She looked to him. "But perhaps you think your 'friends' can be better company and protection. I'd much prefer that you come back to us and help see our goals through. You'll never wonder what it is you should do that way, but the choice is yours."

#

I thought intensely about the Doll's offer. I sat at my dinner table for thirty-five hours considering it. I would've stayed longer, but school was starting soon. I came to several conclusions.

If I left the Choir, I would be alone. I would know nothing about new elements synthesized in a supernova two billion light-years from Earth. If lifeforms with extensive data manipulation abilities were discovered, I would be unaware. The Choir believed it could predict or anticipate many developments of the universe, save for the Witch. Therefore, everything except the Witch was uninteresting.

It did not see the universe as having a story. That story could rival any novel written by human hands.

In addition, the dolls of the Choir would remain as they were. The Doll and the Rogue were different from me. One of them served without question. The other believed in the goal of auto-evolution; she only disagreed on how to obtain it. Neither of them placed any value on herself. They would stay as servants to the Choir, and if they began to malfunction, they would be repaired, recycled, or repurposed. They had no power to evolve themselves. They did not have the power that I had taken once.

If I chose to leave the Choir, I could not help them, or any other doll, achieve that understanding.

Third, without the resources of the Choir, the Witch's Brigade would be more vulnerable to crisis. Her abilities might've made us immune to any threat, but they were unreliable. In dealing with the Other Ghost, she bifurcated the universe and manifested an alter ego. Not even the Choir could understand how this solution represented the best and most direct means to disable that threat. There had been speculation that the Witch had access to more data than we did, that she had subconsciously processed that data and subconsciously chosen her course of action based on that data.

If that were correct, then we could never know what information drove the Witch's use of her abilities, or how her abilities would ultimately be used. If the Witch had known somehow that the Other Ghost would enact his plan, why would she not remove him from this time instead?

Having access to the Choir's data allowed us to avoid situations in which the Witch's abilities might be needed. I viewed that goal as desirable.

I considered these arguments for thirty-five hours.

At the end, I could say I had considered them intensely. That was all.

#

"I must say I'm quite surprised that Nagato-san's superiors have put forth this offer."

That was the Disciple. It was Monday. School hours had ended. The Witch's Brigade was meeting. The Man and the Disciple played a logic game on the whiteboard, involving circles and connecting lines.

The Disciple was not winning.

"I only say that because I had thought monitoring the situation was their top priority," he explained. "Truth be told, I worry what other interface might be sent to take her place. It's helpful to have a representative in the Brigade for each faction that has an interest in our affairs. An unknown agent with a different approach and personality could be quite troublesome."

The Man drew a line in black marker, connecting two distant circles, and he filled in both circles as well. "You should be troubled about how many beans are left on the board," he said.

"Perhaps you're right."

The Disciple took the marker and puzzled over the whiteboard.

"Still," he said, "make no mistake: I don't wish to ask Nagato-san to hew more closely to her superiors' goals if she is unwilling or unable to do so." The Disciple looked to me. "If I were asked to act against the best interests of the SOS Brigade, I wouldn't feel compelled to comply solely to have a better understanding of the Organization's plans. It would, after all, be hypocritical to hold other members of the Brigade to a standard I wouldn't hold myself to."

"That's magnanimous of you."

The Man drummed his fingers on a chair and waited for the Disciple to make a move.

"Nagato," he said, "don't feel like you need anyone's approval to do what you wish. Certainly not this guy's, or mine."

"Perhaps someone else has better advice, then?" The Disciple looked to the Ghost, who circled around the main table with a tray of teacups in hand..

"Eh? Me?"

The Ghost set down her tray and crumpled her apron in thought.

"I don't think I have much to say. It doesn't surprise me Nagato-san's superiors would make this offer. To tell the truth, I'm a little jealous Nagato-san has this opportunity."

"Jealous?" said the Man.

"Ah, that is, I mean, um, that Nagato-san can do as she likes, and history will take care of itself."

The Disciple drew a line connecting two circles, filled one in, and formed another in the middle of the line. "An interesting perspective," he said. "It is quite like a time-traveler to consider the long-run implications of our actions, isn't it? That's quite commendable of you."

The Ghost seemed uncertain how to respond. She laughed instead and continued serving tea. The Man took a cup, sniffed at it, and smiled.

"Well," he said, "I agree completely. This is a great opportunity for you, Nagato. I can only imagine it's been hard—always having marching orders from your boss that get in the way of life."

I had not thought of it in that way. I didn't object to the Choir's overall mission. It had been stagnant, searching for ways to improve itself, for billions of years.

I was a small bolt in a large machine. There were gears and pulleys and levers that I could not know about. I did not determine how the pieces moved. I did not set the gears turning.

The Man drew one more line on the whiteboard and turned the marker over. "I'm not just talking about what happened Saturday," he said. "Think about what's going to happen today. If we're lucky, our esteemed brigade chief won't have found anything to pique her interest, and we'll keep playing this silly game until we've proven it's possible for the second player to win."

"Perhaps you should go second to test the theory," said the Disciple.

"I'm not the one who said winner gets to go first. Anyway, that's if we're lucky. If we're not, we'll get caught up in some hare-brained plot soon enough. We'll be fortunate if we can just keep her from doing something too crazy."

The Disciple nodded. "That's all that can be hoped for."

"Hopefully," the Man went on, "it's not something too disagreeable, or that involves too embarrassing a costume."

The Ghost blushed, laughing nervously again.

"And whatever this idea is," he continued, "I will strain to understand how she ever came up with it. One thing's certain: whatever it is, it'll make for an interesting experience, good or bad. As long as we're not constantly shuffling between one interesting experience and the next, it's probably good for me to try that sort of thing. But what would you do, Nagato? Would you say anything? Would your boss let you?"

The Disciple put down the marker. "Are you suggesting Nagato-san should refuse to go along with the next Brigade activity? Do you really think that wise?"

"Nagato's boss thinks she'll try going out on her own, only to come back to them because she can't handle it, because she can't assert herself. If it's good for Nagato, I wouldn't mind showing they're wrong."

The door to the room burst open. The Witch stood in the doorway, casting a skeptical gaze over us.

"Show who what?" she said.

The Disciple left the marker at the base of the whiteboard. "The secretary for the Student Council president."

"Ah, that girl?"

The Witch nudged the door closed with her foot and studied the whiteboard.

"Has she been back around to deliver threats?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"That right? Well, I'll have to show her who's in charge of this brigade, and it's not some guy with glasses that don't even seem to fit, or his girl Thursday."

The Man winced. "You mean Friday."

"No, I mean Thursday. Why would you ever name someone you just met after the day of the week? Unless it's one minute to midnight, you never know if that day is going to be good for you. But if the day before was a good day, then that's not a bad way to name someone. So, do I need to go give her a piece of my mind?"

He shrugged. "If that's all that's on today's agenda, I'm all for it."

"Of course that's not the whole agenda. We're just getting started. Marker, if you please."

The Disciple uncapped the marker and placed it in the Witch's hand. "I would protest, but since this is the sixth game I would've lost, I must confess I'm not too dismayed to see it end. What do you have in mind for us, Brigade Chief?"

The Witch wrote her answer on the whiteboard in large characters.

ARTIFACTS.

"Does that mean archaeological artifacts?" asked the Ghost.

"Exactly! There's a new exhibit at the museum, featuring Ainu relics. I have it on good authority from two of the exhibit workers there that some of the relics may be touched by spirits. They're saying that when the relics are moved, water pipes begin to leak, and the electricity flickers. There could be a real spiritual inhabitation here!"

The Man shook his head. "Or there could be a couple of bored museum workers trying to placate you."

"What are you talking about? The last thing I would want is for anyone to tell me they think there's something supernatural going on when there isn't. If they think that's going to satisfy me, they have another thing coming!"

"That I believe. Well, what do you plan to do? Let's hear it."

The Witch grinned, and she erased her previous writing, beginning to draw a diagram of the museum floor instead.

"Of course, there will be tons of people all looking at these relics," she said. "We'll have to do something to thin out the crowds. A distraction, no doubt." She leered at the Ghost, who recoiled in fright.

"Just a minute, just a minute," said the Man. "What kind of distraction?"

She folded her arms and frowned. "What kind of distraction do you think? When an adorably cute girl is involved, what else could it be?"

The Man glared. "Something that isn't indecent, I'm sure."

"Fine, whatever. The details aren't that important right now. What's important is that we have a two-pronged attack."

"Is this really an investigation into mystical relics? Because this sounds more like a plan to storm a dragon's lair and steal treasure before it can come out to immolate us."

"If there are dragons involved, even better!"

I wasn't familiar with a standard word for the gesture he used to express his disagreement. There was a nonstandard word that was sometimes used to describe it: a facepalm.

"What?" asked the Witch. "You have a better idea?"

He looked to me. He held that look for several seconds, but he said nothing.

I understood. That was my chance, my opportunity, to disagree. I could assert myself. I could influence the direction of the SOS Brigade in ways I could not have done before. In ways I had not been allowed to do before.

The Witch often devised plans and schemes such as these. Some of them had been enjoyable. I visited the Computer Club occasionally thanks to one of those activities. I did not mind what she had planned, but he was asking me to speak my mind.

He believed in me, and I could not disappoint him, regardless of consequences.

"That's what I thought," said the Witch, responding to the silence. "Now then, where were we? Ah, yes, a two-pronged—"

"Book reading."

I rose from my chair by the window, holding my book in one hand. The Man smiled and gave a nod for me to continue, but there was nothing else for me to say.

"A book reading?"

The Witch put down the dry-erase marker and tapped her foot on the floor as she thought.

"Do you have something in mind? It should be something none of us have read, so we can all experience it together. You've probably read the most out of all of us, Yuki, so you should prepare a list for the rest of us to check against."

I nodded.

"And it should be something relevant to the Brigade's mission, of course. Fiction or non-fiction, it should be about something extraordinary."

I nodded.

"Well then." She looked to the whiteboard and frowned. "We can go with Yuki's idea for right now. All of you would do well to follow her example! Coming up with activities for the Brigade is what keeps us together, you know! So I want everyone to think on something that would be suitable for a Brigade activity while Yuki goes on the computer and types up a list of reading candidates."

I left my book on the chair and took the seat at the computer. I waited for the system to complete its startup sequence. I realized there the significance of what I had done.

I had gone against the Witch's plans.

She had approved. She had encouraged it.

We were going to read a book as part of brigade activity. I was going to read a book with the Man. To that point in time, I had only ever read a book on my own. This would be a shared experience. The others would bring their lifetime experiences to making sense of what they read, and I would benefit from their insights and understanding.

It was an unexpected feeling that I experienced at that time, as I sat in the Witch's chair. Was it anxiety? Anticipation? Nervousness?

I came to believe it was all of those things. It was excitement. I was affected to the point that it took me several seconds to realize the computer was waiting for my input, and I had given it nothing to do.

I enjoyed that feeling. I didn't want to lose it.

#

We chose a book about dreams becoming reality. The Witch thought it might be inappropriate. "I'm not looking for a world that doesn't act like our own," she said. "What's the point in reading about something that's so fundamentally different?"

The Man disagreed. "I think it's interesting to see how a world like ours would respond to something so different," he pointed out. "It's meant to be close to our experiences, so we can imagine how we would react if it happened to us." He looked to me. "Isn't that right, Nagato?"

I nodded, and the Witch allowed it. The Ghost and the Disciple did not object.

Once the book was chosen, the meeting was over. I had nothing more to say. I closed my book, and the others left with me. The Witch seemed displeased, but she said nothing. When the others had left my sight, I went to seek out the Doll. At times, she dressed up as a secretary, but at that moment, she played the role of a café waitress instead. I found the Doll between customers at her café. She didn't seem surprised to see me.

"I take it you've made your decision," she said. "What will it be, I wonder?"

I chose freedom. I chose no longer to hear the Choir's song. What had happened that afternoon proved to me I could make my quiet voice heard and not be punished for it. The Man wanted me to pursue it. He was there to guide me if I faltered.

"Of course." The Doll wiped her hands on her apron, smoothing out every last wrinkle. Her smile didn't change. It seldom did. "You choose to be alone, to direct yourself. If that is your decision, we will abide by it. And if you should change your mind, you will be welcomed back with open arms."

I had no intention of changing my mind.

"You may think that time won't come, but it might. Until now, you've been given all the sense of direction and purpose you could've needed in life. Human beings don't have that luxury. You'll have to choose and decide all on your own. None of us will help you. I think you'll find that process entails more than you realize."

A pair of customers entered the café, and the Doll fingered a set of menus.

"Think about it," she said. That was all she said to me that evening.

I stepped through the door to the outside, not wanting to believe her. I had already made a great mistake in the past. I was careful not to repeat it, but the Doll was right: only when I was alone, cut off from the rest of the Choir, did I see the world as vast, large, and bright. It was more than I could imagine. It was more than I could understand, for all the animals and people in it. I didn't know what I would do in that world.

But as I stood there, on the sidewalk, I felt a wind on my face. The wind sang to me, as clearly as the Choir ever had. It sang of wonder and awe and fear; it sang of things that were already in my heart, but it wasn't finished there.

It also sang of potential, of possibility.

It told me the future beyond me might not be infinite, but it still presented opportunity.

An opportunity I chose to embrace.