|To the Stars
Author: Hieronym PM
Kyubey promised that humanity will reach the stars one day. The Incubator tactfully refrained from saying too much about what they would find there.Rated: Fiction T - English - Supernatural/Sci-Fi - Chapters: 22 - Words: 288,207 - Reviews: 490 - Favs: 417 - Follows: 431 - Updated: 05-01-13 - Published: 09-23-11 - id: 7406866
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
To the Stars Volume I: Quantum Entanglement
"While basic instruction on the consequences and responsibilities of wish-making are, from an ethical standpoint, mandatory, this requirement must be balanced against the greater good of human society. Instructors are forbidden to divulge more about the Incubator system than is present in the course curriculum; this restriction lasts until children and teenagers are past recruitment age, typically considered eighteen. While concern for your pupils is considered laudable, silence is your responsibility as a patriotic citizen. Violation of this policy will be met with immediate loss of position and prosecution…"
—Excerpt from "Universal Guidelines for Middle School Instructors, 12th Revision"
"Taking into account the updated military requirements forwarded to me by MAISL, my projections indicate that production will soon be insufficient to meet aggregate demand. Therefore, I recommend immediate cuts to AC distribution to all households, distributed regressively down the volunteer productivity scale, as outlined in the accompanying charts. In addition, Chart Five outlines classes of goods and services that will now require Allocs to purchase. Consultation with CHAI indicates that while morale will suffer, civic unrest will remain nominal. Unfortunately, times have changed."
—Recommendation by the Production and Allocation Machine (PAL), adopted unanimously by the CEC under expedited procedures.
Shizuki Ryouko opened her eyes slowly, the ceiling sharpening into focus above her.
It had been a nice dream, involving cake.
She sat up and stretched, one arm raised high, instinctively querying her chronometer.
It was 10:11:23 AM, it seemed, the knowledge injecting itself into her stream of consciousness.
She grunted in annoyance. She had hoped to get up earlier than that. Ah well, it hadn't been worth setting an alarm.
Slipping out of her covers, she slid her feet into her favorite bunny slippers, the ones she made it a point to insist to all her friends that it was "just some old slippers that were a gift". They made fun of her enough as it was.
Grabbing a change of clothes off the rack, she started stripping off her nightclothes. It was a little tedious; some people, especially the boys, were lazy enough to just wear the same damn self-cleaning clothes twenty-four/seven. Others, preferring a more personal touch, acquired robots to do the dressing for them.
Her family was a bit more traditional than that.
Sometimes she envied adults, she thought, not for the first time, pulling up a nice skirt she had picked out the night before. Most of them ordered the standard regimen of drugs and nanotreatments, and consequently slept anywhere from three hours a day to nothing at all, depending on preference. That same regimen was considered possibly unsafe in 14-year-olds like her, and not a good idea anyway; it was considered good practice for the new generation to experience a little of the human condition, even the outdated parts. That way they wouldn't forget their roots and grow into soulless posthuman monsters. Something like that.
The government always made a big deal about things like that. Same went for the built-in restrictions on direct mental communication, or on virtual reality. They were expected to move their lips to talk, except for deliberately slow long-range messaging, and time tickets to activate your VR implants were exorbitantly expensive.
Anything else would be inhuman, after all.
Really though, she didn't mind sleeping all those extra hours. She didn't know what people wanted to rush for. Nowadays, there was nothing worth rushing for, and all the time in the world.
Nothing at all.
She ordered her blinds open with a thought, then leaned on the windowsill, looking out at the cityscape from her forty-second story view. Behind her, her long hair silently untangled itself. That was one convenience that was not restricted.
She felt really stupid sometimes. It was drilled into their heads in school: the story of human history had been all about escape. Escape from hunger, from need, from want. Now, humanity had really reached the end of history, and was finally on its way to building a perfect society.
It didn't feel perfect to her.
She looked out at Mitakihara City. The streets hummed with activity, of transportation vehicles constantly on the move on the surface, along the countless elevated roads, and, she knew, deep underground. While air vehicles were impractical and inefficient, the only true solution to congestion, it had turned out, was to go 3-D.
Pedestrians and bicyclists swarmed the skyways, drones patrolled the skies and, if you looked hard enough, you could see the edges of the species diversity preserve, the SDP.
But, inevitably, her eyes went to the starport.
A deceptively unassuming structure, its name was a bit of a misnomer. It didn't send anyone into space, not directly. Instead, it packed passengers into scramjets bound for the true ports, the space elevators ringing the equator. The Mitakihara starport was particularly important, and was consequently unusually large and busy, jets going in and out constantly.
She looked at it with longing.
In a world where you could have almost anything, spaceflight was still one of the true scarcities. Heavily restricted and carefully regulated, pleasure flights were deliberately priced to absurd levels, to restrict civilian travel. You could go and be a tourist if you wanted—if you were willing to pay.
It hadn't always been like this. But nowadays, space was reserved for colonists—and the military.
Indeed, looking up, Ryouko could even see a glimmer from one of the numerous defense stations orbiting Earth.
She leaned over and peered into the telescope she had mounted next to her window, tossing the dustcover onto her bed. It focused automatically on the object she desired.
It had been a gift from her grandmother.
The space station was one of the newer Bucky models, so called for their geodesic, soccer ball-like shapes. No one knew why the fundamental shape had been changed, only that it was better somehow. The military kept the specifications tightly classified. Suffice to say, there were hundreds of them, each almost certainly capable of deflecting major asteroids or wiping out continents on the surface below, and they were constantly being upgraded, added to, or replaced.
Nobody knew if they'd be enough, if they were ever really needed.
Her classmates, her parents, everyone around her, seemed happy with their lives here. Seemingly endless abundance, nothing to really worry about, productive work all voluntary—nowadays, residents of Earth wiled away their time at their hobbies, becoming artists, physicists, athletes, fulfilling the dreams that would have once been stymied by lack of opportunity, burning away the years of their clinically immortal lives.
But not her. She wasn't happy here.
She kept telling herself she'd get over it, that she'd find a hobby, maybe get a boyfriend or develop a fixation on Advanced Field Theory, but it never happened. Instead, she kept finding herself looking up, at the universe, where she felt her heart truly lay.
Maybe someday she would get to go.
"Come on, Ryouko-chan," her father said, appearing behind her in the doorway, not looking a day over thirty. "You've already missed breakfast with the rest of us. You know how your mother gets when you do that. Don't make her wait any longer."
Easy to nag when you don't have to sleep, Ryouko thought, but said out loud:
"Alright, I'm coming."
She lingered a bit longer, looking out at the horizon. Then she tossed the dustcover back onto her telescope and walked out her door, letting her bedsheets make themselves.
"Can you believe this shit?" her grandfather asked, as she entered the main room.
It was a crowded room, designed to serve as living space, entertainment area, and dining area, with modular furniture to suit it.
Many things were cheap, but space in a dense urban hub like Mitakihara City was always at a premium. As a consequence, most families in the city rubbed elbows in extremely cramped flats—and no one wanted to live outside a city, because it was both expensive and boring. Prices were higher away from the centers of production. It was just one of the many practical compromises to theoretical eudaimonia.
"I told you not to swear in front of Ryouko, Dad," her mother said, frowning, as Ryouko took a seat at the table.
"She hears worse in school all the time, I assure you," the man said stubbornly, somehow managing to sound old without looking like it.
"Besides, have you seen the news?" he demanded, turning to gesture at the words appearing on the wall behind him, which had turned temporarily glass-like.
"Yes, Dad," her mother said, in a long-suffering tone. "We can all check our news feeds perfectly fine."
"What news?" Ryouko asked. Unlike her parents, she didn't care to have the news delivered to her brain every morning. She found it distracting, and she didn't see why she should bother.
"They're cutting resource allocations again!" the man said. "What a travesty! I thought we lived in the future! That's what they keep telling us, anyway."
"Don't be stubborn. You know what the situation is," her mother said, voice sharp.
She tapped her fingers on the table restlessly. A sour mood seemed to settle on the table.
Something was wrong, Ryouko intuited.
"Besides, if you don't change your mind soon," she added. "I'm sure your extra allocation will easily tide us over."
She sounded sarcastic.
"Look, I know you disapprove," the old man said, immediately following the lines of the old argument. "But my mind is made up."
"I just don't see what appeal it has to you."
"Look," Ryouko's father interrupted, sticking his hand forward. "Let's not rehash this argument again. He's an adult. He can make his own decisions."
"That's right," the old man said, somewhat nonplussed by the unexpected defense.
"I just want him to know we don't need the Allocs," her mother insisted. "We'll be fine without it. I just don't want to see you die, Dad."
The blunt phrasing cast an additional pallor over the table.
"I could easily make it out alive," the old man said, having heard it before.
"Most don't," her mother rebutted.
"Come on, you two," Ryouko's father tried to interject.
"Your mother is still alive, isn't she?" her grandfather pointed out.
In truth, the only reason they knew that was because they had yet to receive an official death notice. Sometime over the past twelve years, the woman had simply stopped writing.
"I know you're trying to follow her," Ryouko's mother argued, voice anguished and angry, forcing the words out. "But please. Give it up. She's not coming back. She doesn't love you anymore."
"Dear!" her father said, grabbing her mother's shoulder. That was a step too far.
"I can't be happy here," her grandfather said, head bowed. "I just can't. I've tried. Maybe there's something out there for me."
For those who were unhappy with their medically eternal lives, there was a ready solution. Those with ennui, those unable to fit into society, those who had divorced after sixty years of happy matrimony—they all joined the military, who welcomed them with open arms. It was the natural destination of those seeking to change their lives—or seeking an end.
And, if by some stroke of luck you survived, a new life waited for you in the colonies, should you desire it.
The only requirement was that you be over a hundred, and could thus reasonably attest that you had seen much of what Earth life had to offer.
That was where her grandmother had gone, and where the old man was going now.
"Please, can we not have this argument again in front of Ryouko?" her father pleaded. "She's already heard entirely too much of this."
The old man—who didn't look old at all, in fact—hung his head.
Ryouko knew he felt guilty about leaving, and that she was the only reason he had managed to force himself to stay all these years.
"Enjoy your time in space, granddad," Ryouko said, giving him a hug. "Do what you want to do. Don't feel guilty."
She buried her face in his shoulder, not wanting to look at her mother. She meant what she said, but she didn't want to see the look on her mother's face.
The man smiled back at her weakly.
He was going next week. Monday, as a matter of fact.
That's right, Ryouko thought. In a hundred years, I might follow you.
Her mother cleared her throat, grabbing Ryouko's breakfast for her off a nearby counter.
"Well, speaking of resource cuts," she said, changing topics with disturbing efficiency. "The food synthesizer is on the fritz again. Nothing came out this morning but inedible mush."
"Yes, I did notice the dry cereal for breakfast," her father said.
"We'll get right on it," the old man promised, referring to him and his son-in-law, as Ryouko looked without much interest at her bowl of corn flakes.
"If it doesn't work right this time, I'm having a technician come repair it," her mother said. "I don't care how expensive it is. Consider this warning."
Ryouko's father grunted.
"I'll get food at school, then," Ryouko said, getting up. "I wanted to have some crêpes, anyway."
"Alright, have fun," her mother said, reclaiming the bowl of cereal and pouring it right back in its container.
She wasn't happy with her daughter.
Ryouko waved goodbye to all of them, and headed out the door.
In the hallway, she stepped into an elevator already waiting for her. It zipped to the fortieth floor, where she got off, walked four feet, and exited onto the departure terminal where her ride, a personal auto-transport, was already waiting.
She stepped in, the doors closed, and the vehicle sped off, down the on-ramp onto the tube-like skyway, where it would switch to drawing power from the oscillating magnetic fields around it.
Ryouko ordered the seat to recline, laying back. She looked at the sun above her through two layers of distorting transparency.
The vehicle sped its way along at a dizzying speed, in perfect synchronized order with those around it.
Far too quickly, she was able to step off at the thirtieth floor entrance to her school.
Truth be told, in these days of consciousness feeds and universal knowledge access, there were more efficient ways of learning a skill than going to school. Even irreplaceable personal learning interactions could be achieved by simply finding someone who lived nearby willing to teach you in person—and for every imaginable topic, there were plenty. People simply had a lot of time.
No, it wasn't about the learning, at least not directly. It was about socializing with your peers and, more importantly, figuring out what you wanted to learn about. Once you did that, things flowed easily, and they left you more or less on your own.
It was incredibly important, and she had yet to achieve it.
She was early, so she stopped by the school cafeteria, as promised. In the age of 3-D printed food, school food was indistinguishable from what your mother made unless your mother, or someone in your family at least, had traditional cooking as a hobby.
Well, synthesized food was quite good, so it wasn't that big a deal.
"Ryouko!" her friends called to her, as she stepped into the room.
She looked around, tracing the source, a table about halfway across the room.
She squeezed her way past other tables, seating herself firmly next to Simona, a foreign exchange student.
Her tray of crepes was already there, waiting, deposited by the robotic server.
"Ah, what a surprise it is to see you here," the girl said, accented syntax clearly stabilized by a internal language feedback module, as you could tell from the subtle lag time on some of the words. Eventually, she wouldn't need it, but she had only been here two months, and even enhanced learning wasn't that fast.
Ryouko nodded. She didn't usually like to socialize in the morning. It was how she was.
"The synthesizer was out," she said, making a "You can't help it" expression.
Simona, and the others across from her, made noises of sympathy.
In truth, they and Simona could communicate perfectly fine using Human Standard—a.k.a internationalized and mutated English—but learning the native language was, after all, part of the reason she was here. And they understood each other fine, with all that technology in the middle.
"Well, this girl here," the long-haired girl across from here began, gesturing at the pigtailed girl next to her, "was just telling us about how she wants to be a nanoengineer."
"Ooo," Ryouko said politely. "That's prestigious. But what happened to theoretical physics?"
"It turns out," the girl said. "Advanced Field Theory bores me to tears. So I dropped that."
"You don't have to do Field Theory to be a physicist," Simona pointed out.
"Yeah, but you do for all the cool kinds of physics."
Ryouko kept any further opinions to herself, stabbing quietly at her strawberry and chocolate crepe with a fork. This "nanoengineer" in training was one of the flightiest girls she knew, switching from preference to preference almost without pause. Nanoengineering was one of the hardest topics to study, and Ryouko was sure that before the end of the month, the girl would be moving on to study chemistry or who knows, maybe modern art. You couldn't really tell with her.
"What about you, Ryouko?" the long-haired girl asked
"Huh? Oh, uh—" she began, startled out of her thoughts.
"She wants to be a space traveler," Simona said.
Ryouko gave her a warning look, but the damage was done.
"Yeah, but that's not something you can really do," the other girl said. "Unfortunately. What with the age requirement, and the need to enter combat—you can't really want to do that?"
"Well, train to be a spaceflight engineer or something," the pig-tailed girl said, chewing her food, assuming Ryouko's response was a no. "Or I don't know, something to do with space elevators. I haven't really looked into it myself. Actually, it doesn't sound half-bad."
"I might do something like that," Ryouko said gamely, just trying to end the topic.
"I tell you—" the long-haired girl began, waving her chopsticks.
Ryouko lucked out. The girl stopped midsentence, as they all simultaneously received internal reminders that Mandatory Session was beginning very soon, and it would be impolite to be late.
"Ugh," the long-haired girl finished, as they got up to leave. "Mandatory Session is so boring."
"It is your civic duty," Simona said to the aspiring violinist. "Every citizen is required to understand the sciences at a basic level, and to know basic manufacturing techniques, just in case it's needed."
The other girl rolled her eyes.
Ryouko sympathized. Simona sounded like some sort of government pamphlet. She thought, however, that she detected a hint of irony in the girl's voice.
Mandatory Session did indeed serve a good purpose, though. Instituted at the start of the current war, it was intended for the eventuality that the war got so serious that the government was obliged to switch the economy from what they called "Eudaimonic" back into a scarcity mode. If that ever happened, family AC's would start being tied to productivity, essentially making productive activity nonvoluntary. And if things truly got bad, they might even have to go back to something capitalistic.
It was starting to happen a little already. Citizens had always gotten extra allocs for certain types of work, but these extra payments were getting more substantial every month, as did the intricacy of the payment tier system. Combined with the continuous basic allocation cuts, it created an environment where nearly all those with useful skills sought government work, and many others were having a change of heart about being an archaeologist, or a specialist in tea ceremonies.
It was even reaching the point where many popular musicians, formerly happy to distribute their productions for free, were starting to ask their fans for nominal donations. Similar things were happening everywhere—many things which had once been free were starting to once again be priced.
"Thinking about something?" Simona asked, solicitous as always.
"Economics," Ryouko said.
The girl laughed, rich and vibrant.
"Primary School Civics must have really gotten to you," she said, teasing. "I never would have taken you for an aspiring central planner."
"You never know," Ryouko said, smiling.
Mandatory session was interrupted by a rather interesting event.
They had been discussing the finer points of light railgun construction. In the era of direct-to-memory brain feeds, everyone could remember and regurgitate the information with ease—the real question was whether you could apply it, and that was what they were practicing. In the rather cold terms of the government: teaching was about replicating valuable neural circuits.
"Whoa!" said a boy near the window, looking out.
The instructor broke off his dictation of the necessary specs to look at the boy skeptically, clearly about to launch into a rebuke about politeness.
Before he could, the boy turned and pointed dramatically at the far wall, calling up an image of what he was seeing, a clear violation of in-class technology usage policies.
The larger-than-life image had all the absurd clarity of direct retinal output, displaying the image in massively greater detail than any human brain would have actually received. In the center, the subject of the excitement was outlined in bright red, walking along the pedestrian skyway adjacent to their classroom.
It was, to put it shortly, a celebrity sighting.
All of the students immediately rushed to that side of the room.
The instructor shrugged, then walked over to claim a view for himself. It was a pretty big deal, and some leniency was acceptable.
"Tomoe Mami!" a girl said, unnecessarily.
"What is she doing here?"
"We're her home city, guys. Of course she would show up once in a while. Come on!"
"Stop trying to act cool. Mami's a big deal. You're trying to look, too."
The girl—or rather, woman—in question, was wearing casual clothing, rather than either of the two uniforms familiar from holograms of her in newsfeeds. Yet despite what everyone knew to be her great age, she looked nineteen, twenty at most, far younger than the optimal age nanotechnology froze most adults at, the only option they were given.
An appearance choice that was only possible for a magical girl.
As they watched, the girl stopped midwalk and turned her face up to look at them, smiling. She waved charismatically, her characteristic hairstyle bobbing.
"Yeah! Mami!" several of the students said, while as many as who thought they could be seen waved back excitedly. The windows on this floor wouldn't open, for safety reasons, but they shouted anyway.
Ryouko looked out the window quietly, unlike the others, though she had fought her way in for a good spot.
She wondered what it would be like to be someone like her.
I wonder whether this is really worth it, Mami thought to Kyubey, who hung by his arms from Mami's right shoulder. This excursion is blowing my cover.
I thought you liked children, the alien Incubator replied.
Of course I do, Mami thought. But you know very well the problems with me being here.
She waved up at the classroom, smiling kindly at the teenagers waving back.
Well, I found what we came here to seek, the creature said.
So there is a prospect here after all?
Yes, and quite powerful.
Should we go recruit?
No, I do not think that will be necessary. She needs little persuasion. I can have another Incubator do the job.
Mami stopped waving and continued onward, trying to ignore the gawking pedestrians, many of whom had stopped and were yelling patriotic things at her.
Despite the situation, I can't help but feel a little relieved. I never like recruiting.
That is a feeling I cannot understand. However, you should be satisfied that there are others doing the work for you.
It's silly, isn't it? Feeling better about it just because I'm not doing it personally. And yet I enjoy the mentoring.
It is not something I can comment on. In this case, however, you will be blameless. This girl will contract quite happily without your intervention.
I don't feel any better—and no, don't say it. I know you don't understand.
They held this entire conversation with faces as motionless as if they were carved of alabaster. For Kyubey, this was typical, but for Mami, it was something she had learned painstakingly over the years.
Reaching a narrow, one vehicle wide private tube, she stepped through a doorway sized for one person, which closed behind her.
She stepped into her personal vehicle, and in her case, it really was personal, intended for only her use at all times, and rather larger than the typical model. Then, in a maneuver that dated back into the mists of human history, she got out the other side, relying on the bulk of the vehicle to block her from view. Its size really helped in situations like this.
She transformed, ribbons of light enveloping her, hoping the brightness of the event wasn't obvious from the other side.
With a thought, she accessed local authorization routines that were keyed to respond only to those with the proper authorizations—magical girls with codes issued by the government.
In front of her, a small, otherwise invisible opening appeared in the tube, letting in the sound of roaring wind.
It was intended as a fast passageway for magical girls going demon-hunting, but she was using it for something else entirely.
She took a breath, and jumped out into the empty air.
After Mandatory Session, Ryouko headed to a room where, according to the schedule, a specialist would be introducing students to the fundamentals of Spaceflight Engineering. Despite the aspersions she had privately cast on the suggestion earlier, it was probably her only realistic option, and she had been going for over a week, though her friends didn't know it.
But despite all the interest she should have had for it, she just couldn't get herself interested in the material. It was fun talking about fusion thrusters and elevator ascension in terms of actually doing it, but the details of the operating principles, the equations and materials used, they just didn't excite her.
She wanted to be out there exploring, like the European explorers of old, not the carpenter in the dock putting together the ship.
Try as she might, she didn't manage to involve herself more than cursorily in the discussion. Instead, she mused on other topics.
Being a magical girl…
Many girls dreamed of it, despite all their parents' illegal discouragement of it. After all, you could have one wish for whatever you wanted, and the certainty of being lauded as a hero besides. In exchange for that, many, viewing the sterile desert of their current lives, would gladly pay the price.
More importantly for her, magical girls were not bound by any of the travel restrictions that encumbered mere normal folk, though whether this was a blessing or a curse depended on your perspective.
By the special conscription acts enacted nearly twenty years ago, all new girls owed the Earth military thirty years of service, immediately, all other age restrictions lifted.
In the service, they were sent all across the local region of space, to planets and stations that no mere civilian could see. Outside of it, on leave or after—hypothetical—honorable discharge, they received the same bonuses accorded to all military veterans, which included unlimited travel wherever you wanted on Earth or its colonies, and the right to settle anywhere.
Once you accepted the forced entry into the military, Earth treated its saviors quite well. They entered not as privates, but as second lieutenants, with associated training, pay, and benefits, and could easily climb upward with good performance. They received special living quarters, special mentoring, and the best damn psychiatric care and monitoring possible.
Nor were you cut off from family, like the more human soldiers. Your parents could be flown in as often as once every two weeks, depending on location, or never, depending on which the doctors decided was better for your mental state.
And on leave, you were treated as a hero by your community. The media wrote laudatory life stories and children adored you. Humanity felt guilty about its demands, and did everything it could to make it up to you.
It was only your family, and the families of other magical girls, who dared watched you with sad eyes.
Strictly speaking, this was all Ryouko was supposed to know. However, the Information Restriction Acts were impossible to enforce, and with the most cursory of Internet searches, one could easily obtain myriad other, forbidden facts and figures.
And Ryouko had done far more than a cursory search.
For instance, no one was supposed to know about the soul extraction process, or about the terrible tie between one's emotional state and the corruption of one's gem. No one was supposed to know that 1 in 10 died in their first combat assignment, or that 1 in 7 died before their first leave. No one was supposed to notice that first leave was always extraordinarily long, the haunted looks in the eyes of some returning for the first time, or the way these some were fed grief cubes as if their lives depended on it—as of course they did.
She looked down, and was appalled to see her notes tablet had a taken a cue from her mental wanderings, filling itself with depictions of magical girls, grief cubes, and soul gems. She hastily wiped it.
Despite everything, Ryouko envied them.
She didn't even need the inducements or the mind-blowing powers, though they certainly sweetened the pot. Such a life sounded so much more like a life she could enjoy living, rather than the sterile, prosaic life she had here. There, perhaps, she could feel that she was doing something with her life, rather than sitting around uselessly.
But it was a dream she refused to indulge, even if she had spent the time to learn everything she could about the system, even if she fantasized about it occasionally.
Incubator selection was extremely rare, and there was nothing you could do to lure them to you. No amount of private wishing or public pleading would help. You needed "potential", and the Incubators were famously reticent about what exactly produced potential. They chose the gifted and the ordinary, the orphaned and those with happy families, and—in the past—the rich and the poor. Without potential, they would never come.
But if you had potential, then one day, even if you didn't have a wish, even if you didn't want to contract, an Incubator would appear, often with a magical girl recruiter to help convince you.
All anyone could figure out was that all of those chosen would, at the time of their wish, have a deep, intense, and personal desire, something they thought truly worth of their soul—but plenty who did went unchosen, even if their wishes seem perfectly in accordance with the Incubators' desires. No one understood it.
It was something one could neither cultivate nor strive for. You didn't call for the Incubators. The Incubators came for you.
So she didn't dream.
Mami dropped to the ground in a descent that could best be described as "controlled falling". She leveraged herself repeatedly off of the many tubes and structures in her path, interspersed with ribbon grabs and swings to control her speed and trajectory, moving steadily downward and forward.
She was in one of the inner rings of the city, near the hubs of production and research that undergirded its planned economy, and near the starport that she had arrived from. As she descended, she passed Shizuki Consumer Goods, Hephaestus Nanotechnology, Chronos Biologics, and, finally, the renowned Zeus and Prometheus Research Centers, unique to Mitakihara City.
All the newer buildings shared an obvious naming theme, and, seen from below, every single one dominated the sky.
The two research centers faced each other, brooding over a narrow causeway between them, one strangely devoid of structures. At the bottom of this chasm, right in the middle, was her goal.
Latching herself to part of the Prometheus building's superstructure, she began her final descent, reaching the ground at a bone-rattling speed that was reasonable only because of her enhanced body.
She abolished the ribbon, then the rest of her costume, and turned to face what she sought: the rear entrance of an old-fashioned Catholic-style church, anomalous in the middle of the towering urban superstructures. Recently reconstructed and restored, it looked far newer than most buildings of its type. The regenerative architecture and glass certainly helped in this.
Mami had landed in the garden in the back, among the carefully maintained flowers and vines. Behind her, the whisper of surface traffic in the distance was nearly constant.
She sighed, remembering when the heart of the city had been far away indeed, and this church had been at the very edge of the city.
Well, things change.
Was it really necessary to do all that? Kyubey asked, clinging to her shoulder, almost sounding worried. You nearly lost me on the third swing.
"A little exercise is good for you," she said, out loud this time. "And it is not as if you can be killed."
Bodies do not come cheap, Kyubey said.
"You know why it was necessary," Mami said. "So stop complaining. And I would appreciate some privacy."
Alright, alright, the Incubator thought, jumping off her shoulder onto the cobblestoned ground. I got it.
Until later, Kyubey thought, trotting off.
"Goodbye," Mami said politely, before focusing her attention back on the task at hand.
She had left the public transport channels because she wanted to get off the surveillance grids.
There were sentries monitoring the airspace outside of the tubes, of course, but they studiously ignored magical girls, who constantly prowled the intertubular spaces, hunting for prey. They knew there was no need to save them from falls, or anything of that sort.
Most importantly, the passage of these girls was not even recorded, carefully scrubbed from the daily records. It was not considered necessary for the public to be able to deduce the details of demon activity near their residences, for fear of panic or, just as likely, attempted spectating.
Traveling by air was thus considerably more private than using her government-assigned private transport or walking along the pedestrian skyways.
And she had her reasons for maintaining secrecy of passage.
Striding forward, she reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out an old-fashioned metal key. This was an unnecessary complication—the electronic monitors of the building were watching, and could easily open the door—but the rebuilder had been remarkably insistent on things like having old-fashioned keys and locks.
Mami slipped into the hallway, carefully closing the wooden door behind her.
She took a moment to breathe in the scent of the wood. It was so rare to find wood anywhere nowadays, except in the form of trees.
Then she walked down the hallway, the distant voice of a sermon echoing through the building.
A girl stepped to the side to let her pass, her eyes widening with recognition. Another watched her from the corner, eyes strangely passive.
Mami didn't worry about that. Everyone here could be trusted.
She opened the door to a small room deep inside the church, a bedroom for one. It was so cramped it was almost claustrophobic, but that was how its occupant preferred it. The girl could certainly have gotten a much larger room, with a lot more amenities, but she chose not to, for reasons she kept to herself.
It was not something Mami ever pried into.
The girl in question, with the appearance of only a teenager, sat on the small bed, seemingly lost in thought. She was biting into an apple, long ponytail bobbing slightly. On the table, a teapot cooled silently.
Mami reflected briefly on how young Kyouko looked to her now. Things had been different, back when they had both been young, but now Mami looked clearly the elder. That was of course only a choice—Mami had allowed herself to age to a reasonable nineteen or so, while Kyouko had chosen to remain perpetually fourteen.
That, too, was something Mami never asked about.
Mami opened her mouth to break the girl's reverie, but Kyouko surprised her by speaking first.
"Good afternoon, Marshal," the girl greeted, without so much as a glance back.
"Don't tease me, Sakura-san," she said.
The girl smiled mischievously, tilting her head back.
"Close the door."
Mami did so, and when she turned back, she found Kyouko sitting on the bed facing her.
"Well, no need to be shy," Kyouko said, patting a spot next to her on the bed.
Mami sat. There wasn't really anywhere else to sit, except an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair.
"So how are things?" she asked.
"Not bad," Kyouko said, chewing her apple enthusiastically. "The Main Church is kicking up a fuss again, but it won't amount to anything. Those bastards can't touch me, and they know it."
Mami frowned at the language.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Kyouko said insincerely. "I'll work on it."
She handed Mami an apple, which she took politely. Mami wondered if it were a real apple.
"What about you?" Kyouko asked.
"Same as always," Mami said, pouring herself a cup of tea. "Meetings, speeches, publicity events, the occasional campaign—you have no idea how hard it was to pull leave time and come here."
"Well, it's not as if I'm any less busy."
Mami smiled, biting her apple. She didn't fully approve of Kyouko's newfound direction in life, but she wasn't going to say anything, not about something the girl clearly had a passion for.
And if she was truly bringing peace to people's lives, then why not? That, too, was one fulfillment of the ideals they both strove for.
"Have you seen Homura at all?" Kyouko asked, looking at her apple core.
Mami shook her head.
"Of course not," she said, sipping her tea.
"Just checking," Kyouko said.
"You check every time," Mami said, without reproach.
Kyouko sighed, looking up at the ceiling.
"Sometimes I miss the old days," Kyouko said. "Just the four of us, alone in the world, fighting demons. None of this complication with the union, and the government, and the military, and the aliens."
Mami looked up too, allowing herself to be drawn into the reminiscence.
"I understand," she said. "Even though it hurt being so alone, thinking back, we really had something special."
"I wonder where she is," Kyouko said wistfully. "I want to know why she left."
"Searching for her Goddess," Mami said. "You of all people should know that."
Kyouko gave her an annoyed glance.
"Of course I know that, bastard," she said bitterly. "But was it really worth leaving us? Where is she, Mami? What is she doing?"
"If she doesn't want to be found, then no one is going to find her, it's as simple as that," Mami said, shrugging and sipping her tea.
Kyouko stayed silent, toying with the soul gem ring on her hand.
Mami watched her, wondering what the girl was thinking about.
She probably knew.
That day twenty years ago had changed Kyouko's life.
Neither of them had ever put any stock before in Homura's crazy babblings about a Goddess of Hope waiting for them at the end of the Law of Cycles, or her dark mutterings about the state of the world.
How had she put it…
"Come on!" Homura had been fond of saying, usually flipping her long hair in the process. "Stop whining! I'm appalled she sacrificed herself for magical girls as slow as you two! Can't you keep up?
Oh, yeah, it was easy to complain about others being slow when you had magical wings and could fly.
But after what Homura did that day, Kyouko believed. Mami had seen in it her eyes.
Despite all that had happened in her life, Kyouko had never truly given up the religion of her family. Kyouko had always wanted to believe, always wanted to see hope at the end of the tunnel, but her own cynicism had always held her back.
Until that day.
That day Mami had seen that tiny flame in her eyes grow back into a fiery roar she hadn't seen in centuries.
It wasn't something Mami could agree with. What Homura had done was awe-inspiring, of course, but it was nothing but an expression of the power of her soul, something they all had. There was no need to invoke a Goddess to explain it.
She had thrown herself full-heartedly into her new passion, turning on a level of charisma Mami never knew she had. She had leveraged their new public spotlight to its absolute hilt, going out constantly to talk to other magical girls about what she had seen and what she now believed.
Like her father before her, too practical to be bound by dogma, she reinterpreted and refreshed everything the Church said and, in a development that stunned everyone, actually attracted followers, at first a trickle, and then a flood.
Naturally, the Cult of Hope had a limited audience, but it was essentially the only living religion managing to gain members, an accomplishment astonishing enough that it had earned a back-handed acknowledgement by the main Church. Kyouko and her followers, they said, were as lost sheep—full of heretical ideas but easily capable of redemption, with a little guidance. Critically, this carefully-crafted formulation allowed the Church to count her membership numbers into their own, badly deteriorating numbers.
Not that Kyouko cared. She didn't want their attention, nor did she need it—not that they ever stopped trying to convince her she did. Despite all their attempts, however, she had no intention of being a shill for the Church that had killed her father, and she had more than enough donations to keep herself afloat. After all, it had been with that money that she had rebuilt this church, the church where her family had once lived, so long ago.
And it was with that money that hundreds of her followers spent their leave time searching records and combing human space for their apostle, one Akemi Homura, who, one week after helping save the human colony at Epsilon Eridani and breaking Kyouko's conception of the world, bid her friends adieu—and vanished.
This was all rather off-topic.
"I miss her too, Sakura-san, but why did you call me here?" Mami asked, interrupting the girl's reverie. "It can't have just been to reminisce. Not if you asked me to visit off-the-record. That means it's MSY business."
Kyouko shook herself out of her reverie, and looked at Mami from the corner of the eye.
"Everyone calls it the union, Mami," she reproached, tossing her nearly-completely consumed apple core in the garbage.
Mami narrowed her eyes.
"Alright, alright," Kyouko said, looking away.
She cleared her throat.
"It's possible I'm being overly paranoid," Kyouko said, voice taking on a detached quality, "but as you know, the union has several ongoing research projects dedicated to improving the lives of our members."
"Yes, of course," Mami said. "I helped establish most of them."
She suppressed a smirk. Twenty years ago, she would have scoffed at the idea of Kyouko saying anything with the word "research" built in.
She took a bite of her own apple.
"Remember the grief cube audit?" Kyouko asked, querying Mami with her eyes.
Mami thought carefully, chewing fruit in her mouth, putting her finger to her cheek.
"No, I can't say I do, sorry," after she had finished swallowing.
It was unfamiliar territory for both of them. A very long time ago, back when the once-secret Mahou Shoujo Youkai had still been in its formative stages, it had been Homura who had spearheaded the data collection initiatives, insisting that everyone take great care to report in exacting detail on each and every battle they fought, how many grief cubes they had received, how many they had used, and so forth. No one else really had the appetite for that sort of thing, especially not after she took to trapping them all in long presentations on statistics. Most found these stupefyingly boring, and Mami could still remember Kyouko falling asleep in her chair every single time.
It had also been extremely divisive. Many of the early members were instinctively secretive, and while everyone agreed on the importance of working together, they resented Homura insisting forcefully at every meeting on territory adjustments, team reorganizations, strategy changes, and whatever else she thought was a good idea. It also certainly didn't help that Homura's rather eccentric beliefs were widely known. Mami, Kyouko, and Yuma had spent literally years calming ruffled feathers, Mami's apartment playing host to tea party after tea party.
She had backed Homura, but would have had to confess that she was never sure it wasn't another one of Homura's crazed obsessions, like that Goddess of hers, even if Kyubey agreed that each and every change was "probably a good idea".
After a few years she stopped questioning, and so did everyone else. Death rates to demons had dropped precipitously, and the shared grief cube pool had started accumulating absurd surpluses, surpluses so large that the Incubators were actively consuming even those that gone unused.
It really wasn't the statistics that convinced the members. It was the realization that, whenever they met another team and chatted, talk of so-and-so's death or disappearance had become practically unheard-of, rather than the previous near-certainty.
Nowadays, while Kyouko and Mami were still the respected executive heads of the "union", they delegated all the boring stuff to members who enjoyed things like that.
Yuma, however, was still quite involved.
"Well, that's understandable," Kyouko said. "I was only recently reminded of it myself. You remember though? It was that meeting where that French girl kept banging the table about how we couldn't trust the government and got everyone worked up. She had that ridiculous hairstyle?"
A lightbulb went on in Mami's head.
"Oh, right, her, with the hairpins," she said, not at all cognizant of the irony of remembering someone for their "ridiculous" hairstyle.
"I remember now," Mami said, leaning forward, signature hair bobbing. "She had a point, too. The government has different interests from us."
"Right, right," Kyouko said, not wanting to go through the reasons again. "Well, anyway, so I volunteered to use Church resources to do the data collection, since we already have the infrastructure in place."
Members always referred to the Cult as the "Church", even when no one outside of it called it that.
"Right," Mami agreed.
In truth, the Cult "volunteered" to handle nearly all the data collection nowadays. It was just efficient use of resources, given how deeply they had penetrated the ranks of magical girls.
Mami wasn't sure how to feel about that. MSY and the Cult were starting to seem like two sides of the same coin.
"The results are in," Kyouko said, watching Mami's expression. "It's not what we expected, I'll say that."
Mami tilted her head.
"Hmm?" she asked, tossing her apple core off-hand into the trash. "So they really are trying to play favorites?"
"More confusing than that," Kyouko said. "It's—"
She paused, thinking about how to explain it.
"It's almost as if there's something wrong with the supply computers. It's very rare, but on a seemingly random basis, certain squads will suddenly have their cube allocation cut sixty or seventy percent, for no reason at all. Then a month later, it will go back to normal, and then it's another squad somewhere that gets the short end of the stick."
Hmm," Mami said, frowning. "Sounds like a computer problem. So all those people complaining have a point after all."
"Only computers don't make mistakes like that," Kyouko said. "Not anymore. And just to be sure, I had some girls examine the computer systems—secretly, of course. As far as they can tell, everything should be working perfectly fine."
"Could still be a mistake," Mami said.
"There's more," Kyouko said.
She paused, again thinking about what to say.
"When we began asking, we started getting a lot of the same kind of story. Girls who seem like they should make it are sent behind the lines and never come back. Girls who suffer emotional breakdowns are sent home and also never come back. It's a disturbing trend."
Mami thought about it.
"I'm sorry about those girls," she said, "but these things happen. It just sounds like things didn't work out."
"Maybe, but everyone we talk to swears they should have made it," Kyouko said, sounding annoyed. "And our statisticians tell us the numbers look weird."
She leaned forward, looking suddenly pensive.
"While I was visiting Wolf 359, I had half a platoon of infantry practically breaking down my door, demanding that I help them find 'little Saya-chan'. Apparently they risked everything to drag her body and soul gem back to safety, and barely managed to stabilize her, and then they never saw her again. I looked into it, but I wasn't able to track where she went, which is already pretty weird. Mami, I had two-hundred-year-old men crying in my office!"
She turned and leaned on her small wooden desk, surprised by her own outburst.
Mami cringed, both at the story and at the unfortunate name. It can't have been a good reminder for Kyouko.
This was also not quite the right time to point out that, in an age competition between those two-hundred-year-olds and Kyouko, Kyouko won easily. Or lost, rather.
Mami thought about it.
"So you say the math people think the numbers don't look right," she said, trying to draw the conversation back on topic.
"That's right," Kyouko said, growling. "If those guys are fucking up wound treatment somehow, or they're trying to practice 'efficient resource allocation', I'll wring their necks! This was not in the agreement."
"I'll look into it," Mami said, trying to raise a calming hand. "I can't promise too much though. Even after all these years, I'm still an outsider to the officer corps."
"You're our main representative inside the military," Kyouko said, watching her with fiery eyes. "You have access permissions that none of us have. Geez, you even participate in campaign planning and crisis response, Field Marshal. They even let you lead, sometimes."
"I know," Mami said, voice low. "I know. I feel the responsibility, trust me. But I'm only there because we demanded representation. I didn't climb the ranks. They don't see me as one of them, and I'm not. They don't trust me. I have to tread carefully."
Kyouko leaned back, giving her a sneering expression.
"Kyouko, I promise I'll do my best!" Mami protested. "I'm not saying I'm not going to try! I'm just saying that I don't have direct authority over supply chain and logistics, so I can't just look into it myself. I have to ask people, and search, and root around in computer records. It's not easy, okay?"
Kyouko took a calming breath, and rubbed the back of her head.
"Alright," she said. "I'm sorry for going off like that. I trust you, Mami. But some of the stories I've read are absolutely terrible. Look into it, and I'll see what the Church can do."
"Have you told anyone else about this?" Mami asked.
Kyouko shook her head.
"I've told people to stay quiet."
She looked at Mami.
"I'm going to call a meeting of the leadership committee to discuss this before we spread it around," Kyouko said. "The union needs to decide what to do."
"Bring it up with Yuma-chan too, okay?" Mami said, finally daring to drink more of the tea. "I might be Military, but she's Government. Who knows? The politicians might be useful."
"Yeah, of course."
Kyouko cleared her throat.
"I'm sorry to cut our reunion short," she said. "But my chronometer is telling me I'm expected for a sermon. Actually, I'm already ten minutes late."
"Oh no, that's alright," Mami said. "I'm behind schedule too."
"Oh, too bad," Kyouko said. "I was going to ask you to attend."
"I wish I could," Mami said, smiling and thinking that she really didn't want to.
"You know the way out?"
"I'll go back the way I came."
"So would you like to go to see a movie with me?" the boy asked.
"What?" Ryouko asked, turning to look at the boy, confused. She had just been about to leave with her friends, and his comment had come out of nowhere.
"The holotheatre, on the twelfth floor," he said, eyes darting back and forth. "I'm thinking we could go this weekend. That new movie is out, you know, uh, Akemi, and I was thinking we could see it. Or whatever you want, it doesn't have to be that one."
Ryouko blinked rapidly, then glanced around, feeling the quiet stares of Simona and the other girls.
She suppressed whatever facial expressions she may have had. She had literally no idea how to respond.
"It's alright if you don't want to," the boy retreated, panicked by her hesitation.
"No, no," she hastened to say, head spinning, not wanting to appear cold—
Guitarist, mediocre grades, considered quite attractive, a little short, her mind spat out.
—"It's uh, sure, why not, I guess?" not believing the words that were coming out of her mouth.
No, no, why did I say that? I should have said I needed to think!
"Oh, cool!" the kid said, looking pathetically relieved. "So, uh, noon?"
"Okay, noon, sure," Ryouko agreed, face red, wishing the conversation over.
She turned to leave with undue haste, stumbling and almost dropping her bag.
She rushed outward, head bowed, and her friends at least had the decency to leave her alone until they were almost out of the building.
"So," Simona said, as they stepped out to the main exit. "We're all thinking it so I'll just ask. Care to comment on that earlier incident?"
"I have no idea why I said yes," Ryouko said, looking away. "I think I panicked."
The other two girls looked at her as if she were crazy, but Simona chuckled.
"I thought so," she said.
She grabbed Ryouko by the shoulder.
"It's alright though," she said reassuringly, looking her in the eye. "It won't be that bad. And if you change your mind, invite me along. That should send the message clearly enough. I've been wanting to see that movie, anyway. I hear it has quite nice effects."
Ryouko nodded, swallowing. Why was she so flustered?
"Thanks, but that probably won't be necessary."
Simona smiled amiably.
Ryouko stepped into their group vehicle, and the others followed suit.
They chatted as their transport headed for the newly opened park, at the other edge of the city, near the species diversity preserve.
It was another unacknowledged sign of the times, that the city could finally squeeze out new open space. It meant the population was down, just a little.
In the end, it was nothing overwhelmingly special, especially not compared to the municipal green spaces that already existed. Still, though, it was something. Besides, it had only been an excuse to go out and have fun.
The others looked up in surprise when, on the way back, the transport asked them to confirm a new, unfamiliar destination.
"Ah," Ryouko said, apologizing. "Sorry, I asked it to switch dropoff points. There's a famous physicist who lives here, and I promised to meet him. I'll go home myself later."
When she got to the designated location, the door open, and she stepped out, waving good-bye.
"Ah, mind if I go with you?" Simona asked, catching the door before it could close. "I have nothing better to do today. And I might be interested to hear what he has to say as well. Unless he would mind?"
Ryouko looked at her carefully, then shook her head.
"No , it's fine. He even said I could bring friends if I wanted to."
She held a smile, hoping fervently neither of the other two would take her up on the implied offer.
The other two glanced curiously at them, but smiled and said additional goodbyes.
Ryouko watched the transport speed off.
"So where does this guy live?" Simona asked, a moment later.
"Nowhere," Ryouko said. "I made him up."
"I thought so," the other girl said.
Somehow she always knows, Ryouko thought.
Ryouko stayed silent, though, turning and walking toward their left. The other girl followed.
They walked that way, in silence, until they reached a riverbank flanked by grassy ridges on both sides.
It was a quiet area, flanked by industrial buildings. Behind them, a solar collector field quietly absorbed the light of the sun, interrupted by the occasional wind turbine, protruding outward like a tree among bushes. The river was a natural channel for wind, and even if there was grass for aesthetic reasons, why waste energy where you could get it?
She lay down on the grass, looking across the water. They were directly across from the starport.
"Why did you follow me?" Ryouko asked. "Actually, before you answer that, how did you even know to follow me?"
The tanned Simona sat down, then lay down, emulating her position.
"It was obvious," she said. "Why else would you be here?"
"Was it really?"
Simona made a noncommittal gesture with her hand, shifting the grass.
Ryouko didn't press the topic.
Simona raised her hand, looking through the gaps between her fingers at the sky.
"You know," she said. "I'm somewhat interested in languages but, really, not that much. Honestly, I'd much rather be somewhere else entirely."
Ryouko turned her head, giving her a questioning expression. It was a strange thing for a foreign exchange student to say.
"The truth is," Simona said, switching unexpectedly into Human Standard. "I'm only doing it to get away from my family. My parents argue all the time. It's terrible. I think they would have divorced a long time ago, if it weren't for me."
Ryouko watched the other girl, leaning sideways on the grass. What was going on?
"That's why I'm here," Simona said, with a strange smile. "That, and maybe, with me gone, they'll finally go ahead and do it. Or maybe they argue less with me gone. I don't know. Either way I don't have to see it. I wish I knew how to make it all work."
The girl smiled awkwardly.
"Is that how it is for you, Ryouko-san? It that why you want to leave so badly?"
Ryouko's eyes widened, surprised by the question.
She sat up, shaking her head.
"No. My family is wonderful," following the other girl into Standard.
Ryouko looked back at the starport, across the river, in the distance. As she watched, a scramjet lifted into the air, using an antigrav assist, eerily silent. It was the best view you could get without actually going inside.
"I don't know," she said, honestly, picking at the grass with one hand. "I've just never felt at home here, somehow. But maybe…"
She curled her knees under her arms.
"I can't explain it to you, at your age¸ her grandmother had said, explaining why she was leaving. I want to see something better than this static Earth. I want a new life. But…
The woman had paused.
It's all excuses, really. That's all true, but it's also true that I have something I lost, and I want to find it again. I hope you never lose something like that.
That conversation had been on this very riverbank, a much younger Ryouko clutching her grandmother's fingers, but Ryouko wasn't in the mood to share that.
That wasn't the only reason, though.
"I can't really explain it," she said. "Nothing here excites me. Nothing I could do seems worth it. The humans on Earth don't do anything anymore, except at best sit home and think. I feel useless, being here."
"It used to be you could escape by going somewhere else on the planet," Simona added. "But not anymore. Of all people, I should know. Earth is the same now everywhere you go. Zaire, Persia, America—it doesn't matter. The people speak different languages, and make a painful show of keeping their cultures intact, but it's really the same people everywhere, now. The same people, the same cities, the same ideas—the monoculture. If you can't fit in, you have nowhere to go but up."
The words resonated with Ryouko in a disturbing manner. Somehow, she knew exactly what followed.
"At least out there," she said, finishing the monologue, gesturing with her hand at the sky. "At least out there, things still change. Humans fight for their place in the universe, and the rules aren't set. Maybe there, there's a place to be different."
Simona closed her eyes.
"I knew you understood," she said. "That's the only reason I opted to stay an extra year. I didn't have to, you know. I was going to stay in Argentina next. The year isn't even close to up, but I already know I want another."
She sat up, and looked at Ryouko.
"That's not the only reason though, is it?" she said, leaning forward. "Just like what I said about my parents. It's the truth, but not the whole truth, is it?"
Ryouko looked back into the girl's eyes.
"Get out of my head," she ordered.
Simona leaned back, laughing.
"Well," she said, a moment later. "I hope it's worth it, what I'm about to do."
"What?" Ryouko asked, confused.
"Actually," Simona said. "I have something else to say."
"So what do you think happened to Akemi-san?" Mami asked, launching herself up to a higher platform.
This is now the twelfth time you have asked me this, Tomoe Mami, the Incubator thought, clinging firmly to her shoulder.
"Humor me," Mami said. "You might have new information this time."
Kyubey transmitted a mental sigh, in one of those misleadingly human mannerisms it had. It sounded almost exasperated.
No, Mami, we do not, it thought, as she used a ribbon to grab a hold off a nearby building. Things are just as before. As far as we know, she disappeared as completely as one of you girls do when your soul gems exhausts, except you insist she did not disappear.
Mami opened her mouth to speak, but Kyubey surprised her by continuing.
She truly is an enigma. She accomplished feats that should have been far beyond her power, then disappeared in an unprecedented manner. Her delusions—
It's rude to call them those, Mami interrupted, thinking it instead of saying it.
She was not sure why she suddenly felt so annoyed by Kyubey calling Homura's delusions what they were.
As I was saying, Kyubey continued a moment later. A delusion is, among other things, a belief not shared by any other sentient being. But even a belief held in the mind of only one person can still be true.
Mami vaulted upward another two levels, somersaulting as she did so.
"Are you saying you think Kyouko and Homura might be right?" Mami asked, astonished, though it was difficult to show in the midst of mid-air acrobatics.
It is extremely improbable, Kyubey said, clinging on for dear life by its front paws. But I believe one of your popular fictional characters has a saying about the impossible and the improbable. And we are dealing with you magical girls, after all.
Mami stopped abruptly, using a ribbon to lurch herself forward onto a piece of fourteenth story skyway tubing, on a service platform intended for patrolling drones. It was so abrupt Kyubey almost lost hold, and was forced to grab onto her back.
"Kyubey," she said, peering forward and downward. "I'm sorry to interrupt this conversation, but do you sense that?"
The furry critter reappeared on her shoulder, pulling itself up.
It's unmistakable, isn't it? Kyubey thought. A miasma.
And it's close, Mami thought.
She pointed at the location.
"Where's the team in charge of that region?" Mami demanded, eyes fierce, turning her head to look at Kyubey even though there was no expression to see.
Unfortunately, harvesting resources have been stretched rather thin recently. Given the lack of human presence in that area, it is not covered well. The regular daytime patrol is currently at a considerable distance. Even if I used the other incubators as relays, they would not arrive for quite some time.
However, we have contingency plans for this.
"The rapid response team," Mami ordered. "Get them mobilized. The local base must be right there in the church. It shouldn't take them too long."
Message relayed, Kyubey thought.
Mami started to run forward.
What is your intention? the Incubator thought, voice carrying a trace of urgency.
I can't take the risk that someone is under attack, Mami thought.
Operating alone is a violation of regulations, especially for someone of your rank. This is an industrial area, where humans rarely go. It—
I wrote those regulations! Mami thought, gathering herself for a jump. Now get off my shoulder!
Kyubey complied, landing onto the platform, and Mami dove back down among the tubing.
Besides, she thought back to Kyubey, feeling a little guilty, allowing herself to fall through the air, I'll have backup soon. I'll focus on rescuing any civilians and keeping myself safe. That should be enough, right? I can even count this as my regular obligation!
Kyubey didn't respond.
Ryouko tilted her head questioningly.
"Well, out with it," she said, wondering what was taking the other girl so long.
"The truth is…" Simona began, hesitantly, switching back to Japanese.
Ryouko opened her mouth to hurry her some more, but was distracted by a sudden shadow appearing over them.
Her eyes widened.
"I—" Simona began.
She was cut off with an "Oomph!", as Ryouko dove forward to shove the girl out of the way.
"What the hell—" Simona began, shocked—and then she saw it too.
The white-robed figure loomed over them, as tall as three men. Strangely insubstantial, its body passed right through several solar collectors, like a shallow mockery of a ghost. The pale head at the top resembled a monk, except that instead of discernible eyes, its head was shrouded by a pixilated fog.
And where they had been sitting, the steaming mist of the demon's debilitating attack.
Ryouko pulled the other girl up, beginning a panicked run forward, the two of them supporting each other through the initial stumbles.
Demon attack! I need help! Ryouko thought, relaying the message through emergency channels, just as they had been trained over and over as children. To her left, Simona was almost certainly doing the same thing.
There was no guarantee the signal would even get out from within the miasma, but if they were lucky, they weren't in that deep.
"I can't see a goddamn thing!" Simona said. "This damn miasma—"
"Over here!" Ryouko said, dashing to the left and pulling the two of them behind the cover of a turbine column. They felt the heat of an attack hitting the column behind them.
"We have to keep moving!" Ryouko said. "Remember the training simulations!"
"How?" Simona said. "I couldn't see in those things, and I can't see now! It's just mist and sand and—"
Ryouko ignored her, and jerked her forward, putting back into a run.
"Follow me!" she ordered, dragging the other girl by the hand.
Adrenaline levels beyond threshold, a mechanical voice thought in her head. Activate Emergency Mode?
A certain sense of mental expectation filled her mind, making it clear that it was waiting for her response.
Yes! Do it! Yes! She thought back.
Facts and figures flooded her lower awareness–heart rate, glucose reserves, blood oxygenation—and, far more importantly, she suddenly found her legs a lot more powerful, and her lungs a lot more expansive.
Symbols flashed across her vision, and Ryouko had not ever been as grateful for modern technology as she was then. Frankly, she had forgotten she even had it.
They ran, not daring to look back, Ryouko pulling them behind another turbine, then another short run, then a crouch behind a railing, Ryouko practically dragging the other girl by this point.
Ryouko dared a glance over the railing, and found the area swarming with the massive demons, several heading in their direction. It would have been laughable to suggest that the short railing would provide sufficient cover.
"How do you even know where you're going?" Simona asked, panting. "Keep moving, yes, but we're also supposed to stay in the same area!"
"Not now, Simona!" Ryouko said, even though she knew Simona was quoting the proper procedure. "Turn on your enhancements!"
"I can't!" Simona said. "It's not working! Miasma interference or something!"
Run! the mechanical voice ordered, her vision indicating the optimal path across the deserted street.
Ryouko was already moving, dragging Simona up.
The man-machine interface was wired at much deeper levels than vision and hearing.
"You're going to get us killed!" Simona said, looking around in a panic, clearly blind.
"We'll be decimated if we stay back there!" Ryouko said, as they ran. "I can see, okay? I don't know how, but it all looks normal—"
A searing pain burning itself into her back.
She wasn't even aware of herself screaming.
"Ryouko!" Simona yelled.
Ryouko lay on the floor, but somehow—somehow she was fine. That was what her monitors told her, and how she felt.
"Shit, shit—" Simona repeated, trying to pull her up, glancing with fear back at the demon behind them, gathering up another attack.
With a burst of strength, Ryouko launched herself up, pulling a surprised Simona with her.
She didn't stop until they were behind the wall of a building across the street, giving Simona a few seconds to breathe. Behind them, the demons finished lashing the spot they had been with intense beams of illusory light.
"I—I don't—" Simona began, barely getting the words through her labored breathing.
"Don't talk," Ryouko said, voice weirdly detached. "You don't have the air for it. Not with your enhancements disabled. I don't know why mine are working, but it's the only thing keeping us alive. Just follow me. I can see."
Simona nodded, biting her lip.
Ryouko pulled them forward, to the first floor entrance of the building, which opened before she even got there. Technology.
"There's a transport waiting for us at the third floor skyway," Ryouko said, as they ran past rows of robotic manufacturing equipment. "If we can get to it by elevator, we should make it."
She was trying to be reassuring, but Simona probably hadn't even known they were in a building until she mentioned it. Such is the miasma.
It's a good thing there's no one else here, she thought. It'd be a disaster.
That's probably why the magical girls haven't already taken care of it, another part of her responded.
A smile quirked across her lips. So this was what emergency mode was like. She should be absolutely terrified, but instead, here she was rationalizing her situation.
Of course, her monitors were telling her that her brain was currently flooded with mood-altering drugs, and that that her neuroelectrode arrays were firing at full processing capacity, but that was a philosophical issue she could worry about later.
They were almost there.
"Alright, Simona—" she began.
A millisecond before it would have been too late, she screeched to a halt, wrenched Simona back, and sent them both diving to the floor.
The searing beams of light barely missed them, but the radiant heat scorched the skin on her back painfully. The damage reports began pouring into her awareness. Second degree, third degree, healing to superficial damage deferred until safety reached—
She jumped back up immediately nonetheless, pulling Simona up with her bodily, the pain suppressed.
My emergency energy reserves are depleting, she thought. This isn't—
Simona made a scared noise.
They were surrounded by four of the monsters. The elevator, enticingly open just meters in front of them, was useless now.
The demons reared back, charging an attack.
I am sorry to say your survival can no longer be salvaged, the civilian-issue Emergency Safety Package in her head thought, lightning-fast. However, given the demons' orientation, they appear to have prioritized targeting you. With the sacrifice of your life, it is definitely possible to get Simona to the elevator, and she may even survive.
She made the decision.
Drugged as she was, she wasn't even scared. She turned, preparing to grab the girl and rush forward to the elevator, using her own body as a shield. Her cortex began flooding with endorphins to dull the expected pain.
Simona looked up at her with wide eyes, comprehension dawning.
Faster than thought, the wall to Ryouko's left exploded open with searing light, blasting the demon in front of her with rubble. The bodies of the two demons to her right shattered and the demon to her left of lurched backwards, dragged by a ribbon around its body. It wildly misfired, its laser uselessly hitting the ceiling. Its skull then blew open, shards dissipating even as they flew off.
All of this took place faster than even Ryouko's accelerated nervous system could react, and she found herself judging the results post-event.
A single figure, clothed in yellow, dove through the chasm in the wall, landing elegantly next to them.
The surreal apparition of a girl was resplendent, wearing long stockings and yellow ruffled dress. On her head perched a beret with a jeweled hairpin. She carried a single ornately-decorated musket, one hand on the handle, the muzzle casually on her shoulder.
The girl smiled at them, then turned and fired a shot, eviscerating a demon that had been creeping up on the opening in the wall. The musket vanished into thin air.
It was a figure familiar to them from a dozen movies, a hundred propaganda events, and a thousand government news flashes.
"Mami-sama!" Ryouko exclaimed, while Simona merely gaped.
"Now that was a close call," the field marshal said, turning back to talk to them. "It's not safe to wander this far into the industrial districts, girls. But now's not the time. Let's see about getting you to safety."
Emergency Mode off.
Ryouko staggered on her feet, keeling over, not from pain—the damage had healed during the trip up here—but from the delayed mental impact of what had happened. The drugs were being rapidly purged from her system. She suppressed the sudden urge to vomit.
"Ryouko!" Simona exclaimed, grabbing her arm.
"Easy," Mami said, grabbing her other arm. "It's always like that, the first time. Easy."
They helped her stand back up.
It felt as if she was experiencing it all at once: fear, pain, exhaustion, all stacked on top of one another, almost unbearably.
Thankfully, it was receding—albeit very, very slowly.
They were standing on the twentieth floor observation deck of a building near where they had been, looking down on the landscape. On the ground, Mami's soul gem was discharging its corruption into four adjacent grief cubes.
"It's recoil," the magical girl said, now back in normal clothing, by way of explanation. "Your brain is trying to return to normal. Trust me; I had to learn all about it when I became an officer. You'll be fine, just give it some time."
Mami continued to bend over slightly, watching over Ryouko with a worried face. It was one thing to hear about it, and another entirely to experience it.
Simona bowed shakily.
"T—Thank you for saving our lives, fi—field—" she said.
"No problem, obviously," Mami said, smiling. "And you can call me Mami-san. Please. That title embarrasses me."
"Mami -san ," the general insisted.
"Mami-san," the girl echoed.
"You did quite well, Shizuki-san," Mami said, helping Ryouko to stand back up. "I saw you, through the crowd of demons. You were quite brave. Without your actions, I wouldn't have made it on time."
Ryouko nodded unsteadily.
"That's right, Ryouko," Simona said, voice shaky, eyes downcast. "That was amazing. And I saw—you should have tried to make it to the elevator alone! I was just a burden. You should have—"
"It wasn't possible," Ryouko said, swallowing. "And I didn't do anything special; it was just the enhancements. Please. It's okay."
She didn't want to be reminded of what she had almost done. It was brave, yes, but she had no idea if the Ryouko she was now would have been capable of the same thing. That fear of death—she had only felt it just now, and it still cast on a pallor on her mood.
"Is that what it's like for them, Mami-san?" Ryouko asked turning looking at Mami.
"Hmm?" Mami asked. "What it's like for whom?"
"The infantry," Ryouko explained. "Out there in the war."
Mami watched her for a moment, then looked up at the darkening sky.
"Far worse, actually," she said. "The civilian issue emergency packages are very basic. The military is different. Sometimes, soldiers operate for weeks without turning them off. Depending on what they've gone through, recoil might even require the services of medical ward or healer. It's very traumatic, but it keeps them alive."
"And what about you?" Ryouko asked. "Magical girls, I mean. Do you have the same thing?"
Mami looked at her, expression strangely neutral.
"Our bodies are better than anything that the military has ever managed," she said flatly. "And the mental enhancements damage our combat performance; we need our emotions, for obvious reasons. Not to mention that the recoil could easily be a fatal disaster if it happened in a magical girl."
She stopped suddenly, looking to her right.
A flying drone, resembling a shoebox with small conical boosters on the bottom, had appeared, beeping insistently. Mami casually tossed her spare grief cubes into the drone, which then flew off the way it had come.
"No," Mami continued, as if nothing had happened. "For better or worse, we fight mostly as we are."
Ryouko nodded silently.
Mami looked down over the edge of the platform, and for a long moment, Ryouko thought she wouldn't say any more.
"Would you like to be a magical girl, Shizuki-san?" the field marshal asked, refusing eye contact. "It's not an easy life, not at all. Honestly, it's a terrible one. Your only consolation is the protection you give humanity; that, and the wish you make."
Her voice sounded so sad, so different from her public speeches, that Simona and Ryouko blinked in surprise, before realizing just what she had said.
"What—what are you saying?" Ryouko asked, stepping forward. "I don't think I can, can I?"
The general didn't respond, bending down to pick up her soul gem and saturated grief cubes.
Ryouko swallowed, trying to remember what she had thought earlier.
"I—I mean, I've definitely thought about it," she said, stammering. "I won't lie; I've always admired you, but are you sure? And shouldn't I talk to, uh, my family first? And—why would I be able to? Doesn't it take an Incubator?"
Her questions were rather incoherent.
"What are you saying?" Simona said, aghast, looking back and forth between the two of them.
"Standard recruitment policy is to minimize familial involvement," Mami said, voice empty of emotion. "It risks tainting the purity of the wish. I won't stop you from talking to them, but there's a strong chance that this is a one-time offer."
Mami turned suddenly to face her, and the magical girl's face looked almost angry, but not at her.
"It's not a coincidence I brought you up here," she said, pointing forward with her hand. "Look."
Ryouko looked, at the hordes of demons dispersing through the streets and up buildings. They were plain as day. In the far distance, a single woman strolled the streets, thankfully greatly out of range and headed the other way.
"You can see them, can't you?" Mami said. "Simona can't."
It wasn't a question, even though Simona immediately squinted her eyes and tried.
"I've taken us far outside the miasma," Mami explained. "No ordinary human should still be able to see the demons."
Ryouko's eyes widened.
"I saw you earlier," Mami said. "You should have been running blind, like your friend. None of your enhancements should have even been functioning. Instead, you ran exactly where you needed to."
She looked at the two of them.
"And you were hit by a demon attack," Mami said. "It should have sapped your will to live. Instead, you were fine, and the demons starting using their fatal laser attacks instead of their standard attacks. Don't you wonder why they did that?"
Ryouko looked down. Yes, she too had realized that things had been strange, though she hadn't quite put the pieces together.
She was beginning to understand, now.
"What are you saying?" Simona demanded. "Is she—"
She has potential, Kyubey thought, appearing from behind them.
Mami spun around, while Ryouko jumped at the unexpected voice in her head. Simona, of course, hadn't stopped talking until they reacted.
It walked up to them. Ryouko looked at it with wide eyes, Mami watched it with a conflicted expression, and Simona looked at the empty space where they were staring with confusion.
It looks like I was wrong to criticize you, Mami, it thought. I apologize. If you had listened to me, Ryouko here would be dead.
Simona looked back and forth between the two of them.
"It's an Incubator," Ryouko explained wondrously. "I can see it."
Mami tossed Kyubey her spent grief cubes, and the incubator gracefully caught the entire assortment in its paws, before tossing them into the hole on its back.
The rapid response team is here, the Incubator thought, a moment later. You should take a look.
They turned to watch, Simona again a step behind.
In the distance, a tiny spark of light appeared and grew, expanding into what appeared to be a purple bubble the size of several vehicles. When it popped, five tiny figures appeared in the air, dropping down.
"Teleportation," Mami said, by way of explanation. She leaned forward, appearing to be looking carefully at something.
Simona squinted her eyes, seeing nothing.
The demons in their vicinity turned to attack, but their numbers melted rapidly, torn down by a flood of projectiles, sword slashes, and spear thrusts.
That could be you, Kyubey thought, walking up next to her.
Ryouko and Mami looked at it.
Your soul rebels at the karma of your life, the creature thought, looking up at Ryouko. You have reached the threshold for becoming a magical girl. You may make any wish, so long as your soul truly desires it.
"I need to—" Ryouko began.
I should inform you, the Incubator continued. Mami was correct. In your case, breaking the secrecy of your situation by speaking to your family would almost certainly taint the resolution of your soul. Even your friend's presence here has already risked the viability of the contract. This is, indeed, a one-time offer.
Mami turned away, choosing to watch the battle unfolding behind her instead.
"Ryouko, what's going on?" Simona asked, the outsider in everything.
Do you have a wish prepared? Kyubey asked. With what wish will your soul gem shine?
Ryouko looked down and closed her eyes, trying to think.
It was one thing to think to yourself that you envied the magical girls, that you envied the centenarians and would leave Earth if you were allowed to. It was another to face, all at once, the prospect of leaving everything you had ever known behind.
But what was I here for? My friends don't understand me. Nothing in school interests me. I don't fit in!
And her parents…well they could visit often. She knew that.
No, her decision had been made the moment the Incubator had appeared.
Mami averted her eyes even further.
"I wish I could leave Earth," Ryouko said, looking down, "and explore this world. I want to go where no one else has gone before and find my place in this universe."
"Ryouko!" Simona said, finally catching up to everything. "What are you doing?"
Despite everything they had said earlier, Simona's voice sounded betrayed.
Wish granted, the Incubator thought. Your soul has successfully reduced entropy.
Immeasurable pain coursed through every fiber of Ryouko's being, as if her entire body, every cell, every neuron and hepatocyte, were screaming in protest. It was terrible, worse than anything she could imagine.
And then it was over, and there was only the bright light rising in front of her eyes.
Take it,Kyubey ordered. It is your destiny.
Ryouko did so, stretching out her hands.
Behind her, unseen, a girl appeared onto the platform, jumping up from below. She was clad entirely in red, hair tied in a ponytail with a ribbon, mouth chewing on a chocolate covered bread stick, and hand carrying an enormous spear.
"I miss anything?" she asked casually.
Mami glared at her.
"Oh," the new girl said, spotting the girl in front of her.
That girl stared at the luminescent green soul gem in her hands wondrously, head swimming, trying to get a grasp on her new life.
The spear-wielding girl closed her eyes and clasped her hands in benediction.
"May your soul gem burn bright and long," Sakura Kyouko said, "and the Goddess save you from despair."
Author's Note: So I'm basically going all out, and taking Kyubey's assertion about humans joining them in space fully seriously. We will see how honest he was. Field Marshal Mami has a nice ring to it, don't you think?