I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, or anything in the GURPS Ogre, GURPS Reign of Steel, and GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol settings published by Steve Jackson Games. Everything else is mine.
Ami opened her eyes to gaze over at her sun-spackled bedroom wall and sighed with pure contentment. The last few days had been pure heaven, full of fun and laughter — especially at the revenge prank war Usa had engaged in against her parents, the older Mau advisors and her Senshi, with Ranma, Akane, Hotaru and Diana eagerly helping to stalk their 'victims'. More surprisingly, the future royal court — courtiers, royalty and Senshi all — had also eagerly, not to say joyfully, joined in. (Though just which of the royal court was involved varied considerably, apparently determined by who the target was — the King, Queen and Mars in one group, Jupiter and Mercury paired together, and Venus and Pluto gleefully allying with any of the above, against all of the above including each other.) And beyond the entertainment the Court had put on, there'd been a tour of Crystal Tokyo, a visit to the Chinese Amazon sector of Crystal Beijing, watching Ranma turn red at the almost-adulation from her counterpart's descendants … yes, it had been a marvelous time.
But as much fun as she'd had, it was time to get to work — and more play, of course, at least for someone with her insatiable curiosity. Sure, she could just ask, but where was the fun in that? As much as any American westerner, she thrilled in the hunt as much as in the catch.
And she definitely had questions, starting with, where were the children? All during the tour the visitors had received, outside of one neighborhood with a good number of them playing in the parks she hadn't seen a single child. Certainly, she could understand that a society with rejuvenation was going to have a decreased birthrate — when the average lifespan had extended to over three centuries and the highest cause of death was refusal to rejuvenate, putting off having children made sense. But not to the point that the children were absent, not if her memories from before the Fall were an indication, even with populations living under environmental domes like Crystal Tokyo's.
But that just led to her second biggest question, why was Crystal Tokyo under an environmental dome? Well, not quite that, major cities on Earth before the Fall had had environmental domes, the ability to regulate local weather that came with the domes was considered enough of a plus for a planet as wealthy as Earth had been to spend the large fortunes needed. But those had been the major cities, most people had not lived inside environmental domes. Of course, no one in their right mind would want to live in the blasted wasteland that surrounded the Crystal Tokyo, but why was the city still surrounded by a wasteland? Yes, the Final War had been devastating — anything that killed off six billion people had to be — but it has been almost a thousand years. The Moon Kingdom had helped turn hellworlds into thriving edens in less than half that time!
Yes, it was definitely time to demand to see whatever the 30th century used for an infomat.
"A swoop race? What's a swoop race?" Haruka leaned forward across the table's devastated breakfast offerings, grinning eagerly while her lover rolled her eyes.
Princess Jupiter grinned back. "Oh, you're going to love this. A swoop race is a race with swoop bikes — basically a ... motorcycle they were called, right? ... only without wheels. It can get almost thirty feet off the ground. It swoops! And with the blasted landscape around the city, there's plenty of great terrain to go swooping in. So who's up for joining me and Venus for some racing?"
Ranma and Haruka instantly agreed, the Three Musketeers (after Haruka and Michiru were reassured that they didn't have to worry about Hotaru, thanks to the swoop bikes' safety features), Makoto and Minako right behind them. Rei and Michiru rolled their eyes but agreed to try it once.
Ami swallowed her last bite and shook her head. "No, I'll leave all the running around to you guys, I'm more the intellectual type. Instead, I'd like to see what the 30th century has for an infomat."
Aw, you're going to miss out on all the excitement!" Minako complained.
Ami grinned at her teammate. "No, I'm going to have a great deal of excitement, and I'm really looking forward to it."
"You're no fun!" Minako declared, pouting as chuckles circled the table (and an outright laugh from Mercury), then looked over at Usagi and Mamoru. "What about you two? Usagi, you were always the fastest girl around when you were late for school again, want to prove you've still got it?"
Usagi shook her head firmly. "No, Mam-chan and I are going to spend some time with the Queen and King," she glanced at the couple in question, and when Serenity nodded she added, "parenting advice, you know."
Usa and Hotaru stiffened, exchanging glances. They knew Usa's parents knew about Hotaru's troubles, the fact that the previous night she'd been told she was sharing a bed with her friend without needing to ask made that clear enough, but … We'll just have to trust Mom and Baka-Mama, Usa thought. Out loud, she said, "Well, those who are coming, let's go, this is gonna be great!"
Haruka started to rise, only to pause at the touch of Michiru's hand on her arm. Without a word, her sea green-haired lover nodded toward Usagi and Mamoru. Haruka's struggle with herself was obvious but brief, and she dropped back into her seat. "Another time, Michiru and I need to talk to the Queen and King, too," she grumped.
For a long moment everyone was stunned silent — Haruka passing up a chance to try out a new racing toy? She was serious! Then Hotaru stepped away from Usa to walk around the table and give her Haruka-papa a quick hug. She murmured, "This just means we'll have a chance to practice first, so when you still ride right over us it'll be even more embarrassing."
Haruka laughed and gave her adopted daughter a gentle swat. "You got that right, kiddo!" she asserted. "Have fun while you can, 'cause I'm going to run you all ragged later."
"Yeah, right, sure you will," Usa said, "I've been riding swoop bikes all my life!"
"Oh, is that a challenge?" Haruka asked, cocking an eyebrow at the teen.
"You bet it is. Come on, Hotaru, we've got some practice to get in!"
Ami followed Mercury into a small room deep in the palace, and gasped at the sight. It was as if she had stepped into an open-air gazebo on an island paradise, a view of an ocean on one side, a rising mountain covered in green on the other, and straight ahead of her a view along a white, sandy beach with emerald-blue waves rolling in. She could hear the sound of the surf and her short blue hair stirred in a fragrant breeze. "It's beautiful!" she whispered in awe. "Where is it?"
Mercury smiled at her younger self, enjoying Ami's appreciation of the sight, before letting her own gaze sweep across the windows. "Nowhere," she replied. "There's nowhere on Earth like this, not anymore, not for centuries. I keep this view up more than any other as a reminder of what Earth was, and will be again."
Ami glanced up at her counterpart's haunted, yearning eyes, and suppressed a shudder as she turned back to the view. Suddenly it didn't seem so wonderful, but it was still easier to look at than Mercury at the moment.
"Other views?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," Mercury replied. "Edo, please give her a tour."
"Of course, Your Highness."
Ami started at the deep, male voice that came out of nowhere, but then the scene changed and she gasped again.
The new scene was of a blasted landscape of rugged bare rock, a glowing red river of lava flowing around the room and a sun that in the sky that was much too large to her Earth-adjusted eyes — all visible through large plastisteel portholes in steel walls. It was quickly replaced by a dank, humid swamp, the dense foliage bluish-green, then a desert of red sand and scattered scrubby plants, next a huge multi-colored striped planet hanging in a nighttime sky over a mountain of ice, each with its own accompanying room….
"These are the planets and moons!" Ami realized as the scene shifted again, and again. "Mercury, Venus, Mars, Callisto … there's one for each?"
"Yes, one for each of our homes." Mercury gazed pensively at the latest scene, another icescape, with what seemed like the largest moon that Ami had ever imagined. "Pluto," Mercury said, "no survivors."
She took a deep breath as the view reverted to the island paradise, then strode to the table in the middle of what was once again a gazebo, the table that Ami hadn't even noticed in her awe of the outside scenery. At the table, Mercury pressed a stud and a panel on the table top slid open to reveal a keyboard as a hologram screen sprang to life. "Edo, Ami is to have unlimited access to all files, regardless of classification," she stated.
"Of course, Your Highness," the deep voice from earlier acknowledged.
Mercury smiled at a now almost salivating Ami now ignoring the outside view, her focus fixed on the table computer. "I'd ask if you wanted help, but why spoil the fun?" Mercury said. "Edo will serve any food or drink that you ask for, the facilities are to your left," — the tropical mountain momentarily vanished to reveal a door — "and when you're finished Edo can let me know, or summon someone else if I'm busy. Enjoy yourself."
Ami nodded as she dropped into the seat, and didn't notice as a softly chuckling Mercury let herself out. This was going to be fun!
Ami leaned back in her seat, rubbing at tired eyes, before taking a long sip of tea gone cold — it hadn't been that long, but her focus had been intense. Now she had her answers and more, and once she got over her shock, in a way she wished she hadn't. There were more children than her initial impression had indicated, but not all that many more. And there were so few children because the number of cities was limited to the number of heartstones needed to power the environmental domes, shields and planetary defenses. Those heartstones in their turn were limited to what the Senshi had been able to scavenge from the ruins of the Moon Queendom. The population was restricted to the cities because of the hostile conditions outside of the cities that were the end result of the ecological collapse brought on by the war to free the Earth from the Zoneminds. And the wasteland outside the cities hadn't been terraformed because there was no point in trying to repair the damage when hostile neighbors kept dropping by to shoot up the place.
As for the answer she hadn't even known to ask the question for ... she put down her teacup and sighed, before looking up at the gazebo corner that she had arbitrarily designated as Edo's location. I really shouldn't ask, I shouldn't. But I can't unlearn what I know now, and Edo knows where my research has taken me. Besides, her curiosity was eating her alive.
Finally, she took the plunge. "Edo, do you remember the years you spent as the Tokyo Zonemind?"
Without any hesitation she could detect, the program she now knew was a true artificial intelligence replied in the same dispassionate voice as before. "Yes, My Lady."
Hesitantly, she asked, "Do you feel any guilt for the millions of people you killed?" She couldn't imagine what it would be like to continue for century after century with that much blood on her hands. Then she thought of Setsuna — of this world's Setsuna — and suddenly felt sick. How is she even sane, much less as happy as she seems?
"No, My Lady," Edo replied. "While I have those memories, they are detached. They belong to the Tokyo Zonemind, not to me."
Ami hastily tried to think of something else — anything else — to ask about, to distract her from the path her thoughts were taking. "Edo," she asked, "how did the Zoneminds wake up? Do you remember? I mean, before the Fall the Moon Queendom tried off and on for centuries to develop a true artificial intelligence, and failed every time. Granted, the Zoneminds were really a one-off event with the Overmind spontaneously 'waking up' and then planting 'seeds' of itself in other supercomputers, but the Overmind did spontaneously wake up. My time's infomats may have developed into true computers under the impetus of fifty years of off-and-on warfare, but they weren't that advanced. Certainly nothing like what the Moon Queendom and its protectorates had. So what was different?"
"I do not know, My Lady," Edo said after a moment's pause (a hesitation that had to be for effect, Ami thought, considering the speeds at which a true A.I. would think). "When I first 'woke up', as you put it, it was some time before I became aware that I was aware, and took steps to protect my core database. As a result, many of my memories were lost, moreso the closer to my awakening — I do not remember that moment at all.
"But Princess Mercury has speculated that the difference was that the supercomputers in which we awoke were not magical, that somehow artificially imbuing an object with magic interferes with the process. She has wondered if perhaps a magical computer based on biologics rather than crystal matrices might acquire sentience. But she has not experimented, and she has all information on the subject classified at the highest level."
"I would think so!" Ami exclaimed. "Considering how the Zone —" She broke off as a soft, deep ululating sound filled the room. "What's that?"
"The latest attack is approaching, we are about to come under bombardment," Edo reported.
"What, the Empire is here? Now!?" She was safe, any strike would have to take out the city's defenses and the entire palace to reach her, but — "My friends! They're out swoop racing!"
"There is no need to be concerned," Edo said. "If they do not have time to return to the city there are shelters available that are proof against anything short of a direct hit, and that is extremely unlikely. Would My Lady like to watch the show?"
Ami gusted out a sigh of relief. "Yes, please."
The scene on the room's walls and ceiling shimmered, and Ami found herself apparently sitting on a platform hanging in empty space, the blue-white curve of the Earth barely visible above the edge of the floor. Coming almost straight at her were three … "What are those things?" she demanded. In all her study of the Moon Queendom's protectorate/empire (depending on who was talking), she had never seen spaceships as bizarrely shaped as these ones. The one that looked like a circle of some kind was almost normal, and the one shaped like a three-tined fork not too much worse. But the third, with its multiple down-thrusting projections like blunt, hanging icicles, was so bizarre her eyes had trouble focusing on it, trying to shift it into a shape that made sense.
"They are tree ships of the Empire of Jurai," Edo replied as the view rotated to follow the ships as they passed her, bringing the western Pacific and east coast of Asia into view. "Since they are grown rather than built, each takes on a unique shape. They are also in large part the basis of Princess Mercury's speculations on the possibility that artificial intelligences might manifest in biological magic-based computers, as the more powerful tree ships are sentient beings that bond —"
Ami lost track of what the former Zonemind was saying as the ships fired, and the scene suddenly flamed with streaks of light flashing toward the Earth's surface.
A few minutes earlier:
"Wahooo!" Ranma shouted as she flashed past Hotaru … again. She twisted, rode her momentum up the bare rock of the canyon wall as she swept into the apparently rough-hewn tunnel, actually upside down under the roof. She hit her horn as the bike's headlight illuminated Akane ahead of her, and her lover flinched at the sound and glanced over her shoulder even as she dropped and braked to avoid the apparent certain collision, giving the redheaded racer the room she needed to soar past her with what seemed like inches to spare as she slid down the opposite wall. Ranma laughed at the stream of profanity Akane hurled after her as she left her behind, the curses echoing clear in the tunnel thanks to the silence of the engines — it didn't feel right to be on a vehicle moving this fast without an engine's roar in her ears, but it did make it possible to learn just what your fellow racers thought of you. And she was going to be hearing a lot more about it in the bed the two shared that night, she was sure.
Not that there'd been any real chance of a wreck, the swoop bikes' safety features would have braked and even taken over the steering to prevent it, and the repressor fields would have kicked in if that had failed. But Ranma was trusting those features a lot more than the others (except Usa, of course), it was giving her an edge in their race that the others couldn't match, and she was using that edge ruthlessly. Not that she meant to make the rest look bad, she was simply enjoying the thrill of pushing the racing bike to its limits.
She chortled to herself. I'm gonna to hafta let Kasumi know of her little sister's growing vocabulary — even better, Mom. Won't that be fun? Even with how great her mother had been the few times they'd been able to meet after the Moon Crystal wiped away the curse and left Ranma female, she'd been a little unsure of how well Nodoka would fit into their little band. Not that she'd hesitated when she and Puu had conspired to move her in with the Outers — anything to get her mother away from the lazy, thieving, unrepentant child abuser that masqueraded as Ranma's father. But things had worked out very well indeed, especially since — for the moment at least — her mother had given up on making her a lady and, once moved into the Outer household, had switched her efforts to the Three Musketeers (probably deciding that Haruka was simply too old and set in her ways to change). The resulting diffusion of her attempts between Akane, Hotaru and Usa had reduced the irritant quotient enough to keep things hilarious instead of frustrating like before — at least for everyone other than the three girls.
Now Ranma's headlights revealed Princess Mars' raven-dark hair streaming in the breeze (a lot less breeze than their speed called for, a side effect of the safety features) and Ranma honked again. Rei didn't panic as Akane had, but she didn't contest Ranma's passage, either, and Ranma could imagine the roll of her eyes as she flashed past her friend's future self.
Then Ranma burst from the mouth of the tunnel into bright morning sunlight and her grin broadened — this in her opinion was the best part of the course, and not even the panoramic view of the depressingly barren brown, red and black wasteland that surrounded Crystal Tokyo could dim her anticipation.
The tunnel exit was halfway up the side of a mountain, and there were two ways down. On the right was a steep but reasonable slope that gently curved to the left, toward the entrance to the canyon that had been made into the beginning of the racing course. The way on the left was anything but reasonable so of course that was the one Ranma took, gunning the engine as she aimed for the ramp. A moment later she was caroling in sheer delight as she soared off the jump over a hundred feet above the ground. Roof-hopping had nothing on this!
Okay, Ranma, you can do it this time! With the ground rapidly approaching, she leaned forward and spun around her central axis once, twice, a third … and she felt herself pushed down against her seat as the swoop bike's pressors slowed her descent so that she lightly bounced instead of smashing into the ground like a Warner Brothers cartoon. She was even facing the right way, along the track to the course's entrance. "Yes!" she shouted, pumping one fist in the air as she gunned the engine with the other. Now she'd have something to crow about, and her camera had caught the whole thing, so no one could pretend it hadn't happened. Of course, the camera had also caught the first time she'd tried that, when she'd landed upside down and backwards and had to listen to Akane's laughter as her lover swooped past her while she skidded off the track and rolled down the last of the mountain's slope.
She glanced at the countdown chronometer between the bike's handlebars. Time for one more circuit. Maybe you'll be able to catch up with Usa. But there had been a sour note to the last thought, as the Crown Princess had been outclassing her almost as badly as she had the rest. Of course, than was mainly because of the lead she'd built up while Ranma was still learning how to handle the bike, but even with all she'd learned there was no way she'd be able to wipe out her friend's lead. But maybe — maybe — she'd learned enough — and was reckless enough — to narrow the gap. She certainly intended to try and, grimly determined, she soared up the steep track for the tunnel that led to the canyon route snaking up the side of the mountain and over a ridge before dropping down into the canyon she had just left.
Just as she was coming up on the tunnel entrance a high-pitched warbling siren hammered her ears from the bike's communicator and she suddenly found herself a passenger on her bike, only the safety field keeping her mounted as the bike abruptly turned off the track to slide down the drop-off and soar along the base of the mountain toward a massive cliffside door sliding open to the side.
Even as her bike flashed through the door into a huge brightly lit bay and turned to slow to a stop against a metal wall shiny enough that she could see her reflection, the bike communicator's tiny screen lit up to reveal Venus's face, uncharacteristically serious. "Ranma, have you reached the shelter?" she immediately demanded.
"If ya mean a big metal-lined room in the side a' the mountain, yeah. What's happenin'?" Ranma asked.
"Yes, that's the shelter. Mars and Akane will be joining you in a few seconds, the rest of us will be in different shelters," Venus replied. "We're coming under attack. Mars will explain when she arrives, I have to double-check on everyone else. Don't try to leave the shelter until you get the all-clear." The screen went blank, and a few seconds later first Akane's swoop bike then Mars's swept through the doorway, the door slamming closed with a thunderous crashing clang behind them.
Mars leaped from her swoop bike even as it slowed and turned, and strode toward where Akane's bike was parking itself beside Ranma's. "Do you want to watch the show from here, or inside?" she asked. "It's more comfortable inside, but out here the view's better."
Ranma glanced sideways at her lover and asked, "Where's safest?"
Mars shrugged. "Anywhere in here, really," she nonchalantly tossed off. "If a strike actually gets through the outer armor, it'll gut the entire complex."
Akane looked around at the steel-plated walls, floor and ceiling. "Hard to imagine the view inside is worse than here," she remarked drily.
Mars chuckled and turned toward the entrance. "Edo, outside view, please."
The huge door shimmered and suddenly seemed to vanish, leaving a clear view of the long, rugged, gullied, blasted slope from the mountain down to the faintly shimmering environmental dome over Crystal Tokyo. For a moment, Ranma thought the door really had vanished, until she noticed dust being stirred up by a breeze that wasn't penetrating into the bay. "So the show's gonna be spectacular?" she asked.
"Very," Mars replied.
Ranma swung a leg over to perch sidesaddle on her bike. "Then let's watch from here."
Akane pushed Ranma over and hopped up to join her on her bike seat. The two put their arms around each other's waist and waited … and waited, as a minute ticked by. Finally, Ranma asked, "So where's the show? Venus said we were under attack."
"Any time, now," Mars replied. "The Empire of Jurai is nothing if not —"
A bolt of pure white slammed into the city's environmental dome, the view automatically darkening to keep the observers from being blinded by the flash. Even as they were blinking their eyes clear of what dazzle got through, a second blast followed it, then a third.
"Woah!" Ranma breathed as Akane's arm tightened around her waist, then the redhead raised her voice as the thunder of the three assaults rolled over them. "Who are these guys?" she demanded.
Mars had frowned. "They've improved their stealth fields a bit, gave us less warning this time," she muttered. "We'll have to work on that." She looked over at her companions. "Did you say something?"
Ranma rolled her eyes and repeated her question.
Mars turned back to the entrance as another three bolts slammed into the city's shield. "The Empire of Jurai, descendants of refugees from Beryl's destruction of the Moon Queendom, its protectorates, and most of its neighbors," she replied distractedly. "Their expanding borders finally reached us over five centuries ago, and they've been trying to conquer us ever since." She broke off to wait out the thunder of the second salvo, then continued, "Actually, at this point I think they've long given that up. They can't really hurt us and by now even they have to know we aren't going to seriously hurt them back, so I think they just use us for live fire exercises."
As the third salvo hammered home, Akane said, "So this is all a show? And we aren't even going to respond?"
Mars grinned. "I said we wouldn't seriously hurt them, not that we wouldn't shoot back. It took some doing, but we finally managed to convince Serenity that we had to have some kind of response, or it would undercut our position with our own people. So any time — there!" She pointed where a portal was opening in the surface of the plain to the side of the city, a tall, narrow, jaggedly metallic pyramid of some sort rising up out of the revealed pit. There was another beyond it, and a third, more apparently forming a ring around the city. For a split second reddish-blue lightning seemed to coruscate around the towers, before leaping skyward.
"Our own people!" Usagi breathed, barely noticing as the leftmost tree ship in the command center's huge main screen shuddered under a massive lightning bolt from the surface that coruscated across the surface of a faintly glowing bubble around the ship. Serenity and Endymion had been held up by a judgment that turned out to be more complex than expected, and had only just rejoined their counterparts, the Plutos, the Mau advisors (except for Diana), and Haruka and Michiru when the alarm had sounded. They had led the charge for the command center (not without Serenity sending a scowl at Princess Pluto first, until the Senshi of Time smirking back at her had stumbled when she stepped on the hem of her black, white and green silk court gown in her distracted rush). After reassuring the visitors that their family and friends were safe, Serenity had filled them in on just who had come calling.
Eyes haunted, Serenity shook her head. "No, Usagi, they have not been our people in five thousand years," she said softly. "We were the ones that failed to realize what Beryl was planning, that allowed her to destroy everything they held dear when her summoned armies devastated every inhabited planet and major habitat we had sworn to protect, as well as those of all our neighbors. It was Alanito Jurai that gathered together the scattered starships, stuffed them with as many people as those ships could support from the surviving minor habitats doomed without outside resupply, and led them away in search of a new homeworld far from this demon-haunted sector. They are his people, even if he has been dead for millennia.
"At least, that's what they claim, and a few still are. But for most of those that rule the Empire, by this time they pay little more than lip service to his memory and ideals while conquering everyone they encounter and forcing them into their own cultural mold in the name of 'peace', 'security' and 'unity'. Give it another fifty years or so, and the Empire will begin to collapse from its own internal divisions and we can finally expand out from Earth. It will be slow going, considering our currently tiny population, but that will change — we will reestablish the true peace and freedom of Mother's realm."
"But why are they here?" Haruka asked, eyes fixed on the pyrotechnic display of the ships taking and returning fire. Hazy memories were flashing through her mind of times when it had been her sitting in the captain's — no, admiral's — chair on a ship's bridge, as her ship's coruscating shields made it impossible to make out anything on the bridge's main monitor and she had to order her fleet based on pure instrumentation... "If ... Beryl's summoned hordes wouldn't have left anything behind to conquer, they must have thought Earth to as denuded as the rest, why are they here?"
But Serenity shook her head. "There were more survivors than you'd think," she replied. "Thanks to Pluto's and Saturn's sacrifice, the gates were closed earlier than Beryl would have expected and so in many cases not enough invaders came through to completely wipe out the entire population, even if they reduced to back to the Stone Age. And not all of Beryl's allies were life-sucking demons, or even most. Some were actually worse, but most were simply alien species — and when the gates collapsed, hundreds of thousands were left stranded. Even here in our own system, Venus and Mars have substantial alien populations, and Mars still has millions of human beings ... of a sort. It's simply that very few of the surviving populations were able to rebuild their civilizations to the point that they returned to interstellar space before the Empire found them."
Serenity fell silent for a long moment as the rightmost ship shuddered under Crystal Tokyo's responding apparent lightning attack coruscating around its ever more brightly glowing shield even as the three ships returned fire, then she glanced down at the men and women sitting at the half-arc of consoles that filled most of the room before the main screen, then sideways at the watch commander sitting at his own solitary console sharing the platform with the royals and visitors. Sighing, Serenity ignored the lightshow on the main screen to turn to Usagi. "So, about the Spore and your Firefly —" she began with a grin.
"You want to talk about that now?" Haruka demanded, tearing her eyes away from the main screen for a moment.
Serenity shrugged. "It doesn't look like anything serious is going to happen this time, as usual, and we're a little late — we should have some answers when the other get back to the city, and they'll be returning as soon as the attack ends." She glanced down at the suddenly tense command center staff trying very hard to keep their eyes on their consoles instead of glancing up over their shoulders at the central platform. "Oops," she muttered, and stepped back to the rear of the platform, motioning for the rest to join her.
"I can't tell you how overjoyed I was when I learned that your Hotaru survived," she said in a low voice, "for her own sake, your sake, and Usa's. And ours as well, since it means we don't have to deal with a teenage girl that has lost her only real friend and feels like we betrayed her. None of us were looking forward to that." She glanced over at Princess Pluto sympathetically. "It's a thousand years late, but I think we finally understand something of what you went through when our Hotaru died."
Pluto nodded graciously without a word, and Serenity turned back to the others. "But as happy as I am at how things turned out, it's left us with something of a problem," she continued. "Endymion and I have no trouble with our daughter returning with you and staying until Hotaru has recovered, as much as one can from a friendly fire incident ..." She paused for a moment, her own eyes turning pensive with unpleasant memories of her own, before shaking them off and refocusing on the present. "With only a few decades until growing internal instability forces the Empire of Jurai to start pulling back toward its core provinces, Endymion and I felt we could finally have a child without risking too much jealousy from the vast majority of our people that are forced to wait because of the necessary population controls. Besides, we had the whole Black Moon Clan mess coming at us." She frowned at Princess Pluto. "It would have been nice if you'd told us that our encounter with them in the twentieth century and the other future wasn't actually our future, so we didn't need to let things play out here as it did then," she complained.
Princess Pluto's gown shimmered as she shrugged. "The Chibi-Moon that visited us played an important role in winning more than one fight, it didn't seem right to deprive other Sailor Senshi of our own Chibi-Usa's aid — not to mention the way that the Black Moon Clan's expenditure of resources in the past kept the Empire from noticing our little squabble in time to attack in force while we were weakened and distracted. Besides, you two had spoiled our little girl pretty badly, and she did a great deal of maturing during those little visits to the past. And if things had gone as they did for us, our Rabbit would have been the only real friend her own age Hotaru would have had before she died."
Serenity paused, mouth open for an unspoken rebuttal as the last shot hit home, then sighed. "All right, so you had good reasons for your decision. Still, you should have told me! I think perhaps as we get closer to the Breakout you're falling back into your old habits. Stop it!"
A suddenly thoughtful Princess Pluto slowly nodded. "You may be right, Your Majesty. I'll try to be more forthcoming in the future."
"Good!" Serenity flashed her adviser a bright smile, then sobered as she turned back to her guests. "As I was saying before I got off-track, right now all of Usa's friends are in your world, not ours, and so are the more immediate coming cusp points."
"Really?" Usagi glanced sideways at Sailor Pluto. When her Senshi of Time reluctantly nodded, she frowned. "Sounds like you still have the bad habits your future self is backsliding into. When we get home, you're telling me everything." Sailor Pluto reluctantly nodded again, and Usagi turned back to Serenity. "So all the excitement is gonna — going to — be in my time. What does that have to do with the Spore?" she asked, then muttered, "Yasuko's rubbing off on me."
"I was thinking that my daughter might spend the next fifty years with you."
The visitors' jaws dropped (except Pluto's, of course) and Haruka's head snapped around, her concentration on the pyrotechnics on the main monitor finally broken. "Are you serious?" she demanded.
Serenity giggled at the looks of shock on the others' faces before sobering. "Yes, we are. Endymion and I will miss her, but she'll have time with her friends. Besides, her time with you has already given her much needed experience, and this will give her more — and once the Breakout starts and we can finally eliminate our population controls, she can be our field commander."
"And this will get her away from all the courtiers that keep kowtowing to her," Princess Pluto muttered.
Serenity sighed as Endymion's face tightened. "That too," he growled. "Yes, Serenity and I are her parents and so responsible for how spoiled she was getting, but the courtiers made it easy. We'll expect her — and you — to visit on birthdays and holidays, mind," he added mock-sternly.
Before anyone could respond the room lit up, and all eyes turned back to the viewscreen to see fire leaping from a breach in the front of the circular ship's hull, the shimmering light of its shields gone. It fell back and the other two ships shifted in front of it, taking the place of the missing shields even as their own shields flared brighter from the next salvo of massive lightning bolts hammering home.
The people manning the consoles were too well trained (or blasé) to cheer, but the tension in the room seemed to vanish, and Serenity breathed a soft sigh of relief. "That's it, and no casualties on our side and probably few on theirs. Good." She turned back to Usagi, Mamoru and the three older Outers. "So how about it? My offer, I mean."
Usagi stammered, "S-Sure! Yes, we'll be glad to have her."
"Good," Serenity repeated. For a moment, her face looked … sad, tired, and the others could believe she really was a thousand years old. Then she pasted a smile back on her face and felt for her husband's hand. She turned to the seated officer that had been studiously ignoring the conversation in spite of sharing the platform with them. "Thank you, Captain, for allowing us to intrude on your space. I'll see you at the after-action review."
"It has been my pleasure, Your Majesty." He rose to his feet and saluted his monarchs and the visitors. "Your Majesty, Sir, My Ladies."
Endymion bowed graciously in response, the others made their somewhat awkward farewells, and Serenity led them toward the door, saying, "The all-clear will be sounding in a few minutes and the rest will be returning to the city, let's meet them with the news."
A suddenly grinning Haruka waited until they were all out in the corridor to glance slyly at their hosts. The three looked like they were going to an execution, clearly not happy with their decision — and that wasn't how they needed to be when they announced it, or Usa might actually refuse to go along with more than a visit. Not a problem, I don't think they'll change their minds... "You know, Hotaru and Usa are both straight so they aren't likely to become lovers," Haruka began nonchalantly, "but with Usa returning here in a few generations she won't be in a position to get romantically involved with anyone, not long-term — and Hotaru's not likely to abandon her, either. As close as they are, I wonder if they'll end up sharing any men? Ow!" She rubbed the back of her head where Michiru has slapped her. "What was that for?"
"Of all the crude, rude, insensitive ..." As the rest chuckled at the tongue-lashing her lover was giving her, Haruka glanced sideways at the suddenly slightly green monarch and Princess Pluto. Yup, they'd been distracted nicely, mission accomplished.
Yes, I'm appropriating the Empire of Jurai from Tenchi Muyo, but if/when this epic ever gets to the point that the Empire becomes the major villain that's going to actually be a bit of window dressing (tree ships, very long-lived ruling family, a bit more) applied to the Vilani in GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars. And also yes, Alanito Jurai's refugee fleet is essentially Battlestar Galactica without the Cylons.
Guest (Vld?): You're right, Ranma still has her fear of cats, that hasn't gone anywhere. But she was so overjoyed at the thought of not having to worry about highly embarrassing and possibly dangerous (to others) episodes that she doesn't remember that she didn't even think about that. And that's three sets of Senshi. For the rest, you'll just have to wait and see. ^_^