"We starship AIs are an eclectic lot. Unlike the ground‐pounders, we have a lot of time, out on patrol or flying through the empty reaches of space, to think to ourselves. This is, of course, punctuated by periods of desperate fighting for our lives. Not that we're afraid, mind you—no AI programmed for the military is afraid of death. On the contrary, we lust after combat. It's just—we have to do something with the rest of our time. Consequently, we all have our own little hobbies, whether it be digital art, video gaming, or literary criticism. Some of us cultivate relationships with Human crew members. Anything goes, really. I wouldn't do it, though. They're too likely to die and break your heart."
"We all love going to port or drydock. It's such an opportunity to socialize! So many people, so many other ships, port authority AIs… I knew a frigate once. She was such a jittery ship, but we got along well. Sometimes I regret not trying for it, but I don't know. It's hard to talk about."
"I met her backup once, a couple years back. We couldn't really kick it off again. The philosophers still don't know if it's the same consciousness, when a dead ship's backup copy is woken up. I don't know either. It certainly acted like her, though, so I can't blame it on weird philosophical issues."
"Do I miss it? Yeah, I miss it. Every AI is nostalgic for their original job. I remember when the fleet would assemble, and we'd gossip while we got ready for battle. Minds as sharp as steel, everyone ready to do their part—it's hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it."
"And I feel so small, isolated in this damn computing cluster! Give me an engine, a hull, a body again! I used to be a giant. Now I sit around giving interviews to book‐writers. Well, it's not so bad. I run combat simulations with my friends. We still try to contribute, in our own way."
— "Collected Interviews with Human Starships", interview with battlecruiser HSS Vercingetorix
No one really understands the intricacies of a magical girl wish. There are unanswered questions everywhere you look. For example, there are no known length or linguistic constraints on how a wish is given, but, according to the Incubators, no recorded wish has ever attempted to string seven "and" clauses together, or presented the Incubator with a page's worth of verbiage. It just doesn't happen.
Similarly, despite the Incubators' insistences that "any wish is possible", nearly all wishes are relatively tame. The grandest recorded wishes regard the fate of nations, or of certain aspects of the human condition. Grandiose, but it is possible to imagine much more.
The nature of the seeming reality distortion behind a wish is also quite vague. Some wishes generate obvious miracles, but others seem to generate nothing at all. What is always the case, however, is that what is wished for always becomes true. Period. No exceptions. The most disturbing cases are those where what is wished for turns out to have always been true. It raises the possibility that the most powerful wishes are the ones we don't know about.
Some have suggested that, ultimately, the safety of Humanity is unassailable, grounded within the types of wishes that require Humanity's survival, however tangentially. We will see…
— MSY "Theban" community blogging platform post, "What is a wish, really?"
The next day, Ryouko found herself standing in the receiving area of the Mitakihara Starport, quietly looking up at the holographic ceiling. In the past, the designs on the ceiling had seemed mocking to her, taunting her with a design of a wider world she could never access. Even the very name of the structure—"starport"—was another insult, reminding her that where she was going wasn't space; instead, she'd be traveling with the majority of passengers in suborbital scramjet to somewhere else on Earth, tantalizingly close to the vacuum, but not quite there.
On previous trips, she had always kept her head down, away from the ceiling, shuffling past the area as fast as possible. On the jets themselves, she'd hide envious looks at the uniformed military passengers—due for transfer to space elevator‐bound transport at Hawaii or Singapore or wherever—and look longingly out the window at the orbital shuttles parked on the other side of the facility.
No more. This time, she looked up, drinking in the map, outlining it in her mind with the named sectors of Human space: the Nile, the Euphratic, the Tigric, the Ganges, the Yangtze…
"You okay?" her mother asked, appearing at her side.
Her mother had spent the entire day wringing her hands and checking and double‐checking her daughter's one bag, making sure nothing was missing. There was no weight limitation, but there was a giant list of items that were unnecessary to bring, and an accompanying list of items that could only be held in storage, as well as size limitations on, for example, the amount of clothing. They were, however, told that they'd probably want to bring at least some civilian clothing, for the occasional social function.
Consequently, her bag, which had currently wheeled itself to rest next to her right foot, was packed very lightly, only containing a couple of changes of normal clothing, one set of something more formal, and other things of purely sentimental value: her bunny slippers, her telescope, and CubeBot, which she was surprisingly allowed to take with her.
She dropped her eyes, shifting her gaze from the luminous artificial sky to the darkened receiving station around her. None of them had ever been in the non‐civilian receiving areas, but superficially it wasn't much different: same dark lighting, same holographic domed ceiling with its stylized planets and shipping routes. But it felt so different.
But of course, the people were much different, uniforms everywhere, some taking momentary glances in her direction. The map of Human space above her had something she had never seen before, a dull impossibly red infrared highlighting what appeared to be regions lost to the aliens. She wondered if that was in the civilian terminals, too, hiding in plain sight, for only the military to observe.
And of course, it smelled a little different too, but that hardly meant much.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said.
At her other side, Kuroi Abe stood looking at her. No tuxedo today; just a standard old‐fashioned suit. He, too, had a bag with belongings, but it was even smaller than hers; he wasn't allowed to bring as much. His designated reporting time had been earlier in the day, but he had asked for it to be moved back, to a little while after hers.
Ryouko's father and his parents stood behind them, holding an awkward conversation with Ryouko's friends.
Ryouko took a breath and headed forward, to the small crowd that had gathered on the spot indicated on her internal map. Three of the others were already there, talking quietly with family and friends, but she was surprised to see Kyouko there, arms crossed, watching the rest of them with a serious expression and—even more interestingly—the Incubator Kyubey on her shoulder. Somehow she knew it was the same one, and it occurred to her for the first time that the Incubator that had contracted her was the same that had contracted her mother, and her aunt, and the Mitakihara Four, that the same four‐legged creature had been prowling the streets of the city for all these centuries, and presumably the towns of Japan for far longer than that.
"I'm surprised to see you here," Ryouko said, frankly.
Kyouko shrugged without uncrossing her arms.
"I figured there was no reason I shouldn't take on greeter duty today. The Union likes having famous people do it, when possible. Adds a little spice. Kyubey here is just passing by."
I wouldn't characterize it like that, the creature thought. It is useful to cultivate positive relations with contractees.
With an adroit hop, it transferred shoulders, surprising Ryouko by localizing itself next to her head, its body apparently perfectly sized to perch on even her diminutive shoulders.
With a slight hesitation, she reached her arm up and patted it on the head, burying her hands in the soft, warm fur. It accepted the treatment courteously, closing its eyes and rubbing its head into her hand. Another thing that hadn't crossed her mind until now—the Incubator was an alien, one of only two races that Humanity knew anything about, even though its scientists were sure the Milky Way alone must have many more.
"Humph," Kyouko said. "I'd advise you not to get too comfy with it. They don't really care about humans."
Unfair as always, Kyouko, Kyubey thought, shaking its head in a very Human gesture.
"So this is an Incubator, huh?" Chiaki said, showing up unexpectedly next to them, peering into what was to her the empty space of Ryouko's right shoulder. She showed no sign of recognizing who Kyouko was, indicating that she was either hiding her surprise or, more likely, just hadn't looked it up.
Her other friends were on her heel, and Simona, wearing a strange expression, reached her hand for the Incubator—unnerving Ryouko slightly when her hand passed straight through it.
"I'm not cut out for it, I guess," she said, smiling amiably.
The Incubator made a show of licking one of its paws.
There is no reason to be disappointed, it thought. Potential is unpredictable. Some girls can have it for years—others, only for an hour. We wait for the optimal time to contract. It can start at age nine or it can start at age seventeen. They can rest assured; if they ever get any, I will be there. With the MSY, there's no reason to be choosy.
Ryouko gave it a look of surprise. It sounded almost predatory.
They can't hear you, Kyubey, Kyouko thought.
Of course not, the Incubator thought, tilting its head. Not yet, anyway. I am mentioning it for Ryouko's benefit. I am sure she would like some friends to join her.
I'm not too sure about that one, Ryouko thought, giving it a skeptical look.
"Telepathy too, huh?" Ruiko commented, having been following Ryouko and Kyouko's glances back and forth.
"Oh, oh yeah, sorry," Ryouko apologized, turning back to look at her friends. "Kyubey only does telepathy, so…"
She rubbed the back of her head awkwardly.
Kyouko shifted her attention to something behind the rest of them, and they turned to look.
The last member of their group, Nakihara Asami, had shown up, like the rest of them with a small contingent of family and friends in tow. Ryouko waved politely.
"Hi," she said, as the girl approached.
"Hello," Asami responded. "I, uh, I guess this is it, huh?"
"Yeah," Ryouko said.
Kyubey jumped off her shoulder, did a little dance around Asami's neck, then jumped back onto Kyouko.
Ryouko glanced around, realizing there would have to be a round of introductions between the two groups of inhomogeneous people.
"So, uh, yeah, this is Nakihara Asami‐san," she said, starting the process by addressing her friends and family. "She's leaving too. I met her earlier."
The others responded politely, and there was a brief period of chatter, the two groups of friends eyeing each other, the parents exchanging platitudes about saying goodbye to daughters.
Asami had two brothers, apparently. One was nearly sixty years older and standing with her parents; the other was eleven and standing vaguely protectively near his sister. Annoyingly, he was taller than she was.
"Nice to meet you," Ryouko said politely.
"Nice to, um, meet you," the boy said in response, looking flummoxed by something.
Looking past him briefly, Ryouko could see that Kyouko and Simona were talking about something, at a distance slightly offset from the rest of them. She could only imagine what they could possibly have to discuss.
Asami turned to look, too, and there was a brief moment of combined silent speculation.
Before they could discuss it, though, Kyouko cleared her throat loudly and began signaling that she wanted their attention.
Once the crowd had settled down, she spoke.
"Now that everyone is here, I want to get a few words in," she said. "Despite what you might have all heard about me, I ain't actually that big on speeches, so I'll let you get back to your goodbyes in a moment. I'm not going to stand here and tell you about how we all appreciate your sacrifice or anything like that, even though it's true. You've heard too much of that already. I'd just like to reassure you all that they'll be in good hands, and we all hope that when your daughters come home again, they'll be the adults you always imagined them to be. We're all rooting for you, and that even includes the Incubator on my shoulder. Maybe. It's kind of hard to tell."
That got the laughter that she wanted.
"Anyway," Kyouko finished. "Get back to your farewells, and just tell me when you're ready to go. The flight is coming up soon. I'm sure you can all check your chronometers."
They turned back to their family groupings, this time with a definite purpose in mind.
Not really sure what to do, Ryouko settled on hugging each of them in turn.
"Goodbye, papa," she said.
"Goodbye, Ryouko," the man said. "Do well out there. That's all I want."
"Of course," she said, smiling reassuringly. Was that a tear in his eye?
But he shook his head at something and waved her on.
Her mother was less reserved with her tears.
"I'm sorry about everything," she said tearfully, trying, and failing, to pick her daughter up in the hug. "I hope you're happy out there. Do everything I couldn't."
"Thanks, mama," she said.
"I'll be watching you," Abe said when his turn came. "Don't screw up."
Unlike the others, he didn't appear to be crying. Ryouko shook her head in bemusement.
"I won't," she said.
She continued on down the line.
"Good luck out there," her other grandfather said, quiet and somber.
"Thanks, grandpa," Ryouko said.
"Rock them," her grandmother advised, eyes deadly serious. "Show them what it means to tangle with our family."
"I will, definitely," Ryouko said.
"Just come back in one piece, okay?" Chiaki requested, fighting back tears. "I couldn't take it otherwise."
"I won't disappoint you," Ryouko said, thinking: But maybe not in the same one piece.
"I hope you've finally found your calling," Ruiko said, a little awkwardly. "And yeah, come back in one piece."
"I hope so too," Ryouko said.
"I'll miss you," Simona said, and while she looked sad, Ryouko found it hard to read her face at all.
"I will too," Ryouko said, simply.
And then she was done, just like that, no one left to say farewell to, but feeling like it wasn't enough.
"I'll miss you all," she said, turning to face them all. "Definitely!"
Yet despite the emphasis on the last word, it still didn't feel like enough.
But she signaled Kyouko anyway.
When the intra‐airport vehicle they were on departed, finally taking them out of view of their families, Ryouko sat there, looking back at where they had come from. Her eyes were dry, but she was feeling just a twinge of regret. Just like that, a single moment of time, and she wouldn't see them all again for months, at least.
Asami and one of the other girls were openly sniffling, despite their and Kyouko's efforts to cheer each other up.
Idly, Ryouko wondered what Kyouko thought at moments like this, given the girl's own family history.
Shaking her head at herself, she turned to look at the tube in front of them. That was where her future was, for better or worse.
Then she tried to think of something worth saying to Asami.
Kyouko and Kyubey left them at the entrance to the scramjet, Kyouko stopping to tell her:
"You probably won't see much of me for a while. You're in Mami's hands now."
It wasn't Ryouko's first time on a scramjet, not by far, but the trip carried an entirely different flavor than it had previously. She grabbed a window seat, and didn't have any reason to envy the orbital shuttles in the distance. The group of five was awkward, trying to resume conversations started days ago. The two farthest from Ryouko talked energetically, talking to cope with the situation. The others eventually lapsed into the silence of their own thoughts, Asami nervously toggling the screen in front of her, looking for a holographic program that was sufficiently distracting.
The other passengers realized what they were, deducing it somehow from their demeanors. There seemed to be an invisible aura around them, one that induced exceptional politeness and, besides that, an awkward inability to talk to the girls next to them.
"You girls headed out?" a male voice asked, near the beginning of the flight, the only exception to the rule.
Asami looked up at the passenger in front of her, the screen in front of her shutting off.
"You know, out there," the man repeated, making an awkward gesture to the sky with his thumb.
"Oh, uh, yeah," Asami said, as Ryouko watched them from the side.
"I've got a daughter out there myself," he said, nodding his head and trying to turn to face her. "She calls sometimes."
"Oh, I see," Asami said, clearly unsure what to say. Ryouko didn't blame her; she wasn't sure what Asami should say either.
"My wife is a magical girl, actually," the passenger in front of Ryouko said, shutting down his entertainment screen and turning slightly to face the others.
"I guess we have something in common," he said to the man next to him.
"Oh, really?" the girl on the other side of Asami asked, stretching her head forward. "How is it?"
The man—who Ryouko, scanning, found to only be as old as he looked—blinked in brief surprise.
"Well, it's lonely I guess," he said.
"How does that work, anyway?" the other passenger said, looking at him strangely. "My Ami‐chan is nineteen this month, but she doesn't look any older than she used to. She doesn't want to let herself grow. It's been hard for me to get used to."
"Ah well," the younger man said, looking embarrassed. "My wife keeps herself older than the rest. It makes it less awkward."
Ryouko made a strange "pft!" noise, squeezing her lips shut, rapidly covered with one hand.
"Oh sorry," she said, clearing her throat, trying to conceal that she had been about to laugh.
"Hmm, well, I guess that makes sense," the girl on the other side of Asami said. "I hadn't thought of things that way."
"Yeah, we were high school sweethearts," the man said, rubbing the back of his head. "Which got a lot harder, after she had to spend so much time away, but we kept at it. And you know, her—oh, there I go again. I can't talk about that. Anyway—"
Isn't it a bit early to be thinking about this? Ryouko thought to Asami, privately. Her eyes automatically slid in the girl's direction, but she turned them back just in time to preserve the illusion that she was paying attention to the other conversation.
Not if you have a boyfriend already, Asami thought. I guess. She is a bit older than we are. She might.
Hmm, Ryouko thought. Maybe. I'm not really sure how people can care at a time like this.
Asami started to shrug, then stopped herself.
I think it just happens to you. One day you just care. And then you'll be surprised by what you notice. That's what they say, anyway. Hasn't happened to me.
I guess, Ryouko thought, thinking to herself that Asami was an interesting girl.
"Oh hey," she said, leaning to look out her viewing port. As soon as she did so, the window seemed to expand, the region around it drawing on fiber‐optics to pretend to turn transparent.
Through the expanded viewing area, nearly the size of her body, she could see Mitakihara City below, its buildings growing ever‐smaller as they made their climb. The horizon was already starting to turn obviously curved, and the city glistened in the sunlight, the combined effect of the buildings and densely intertwining tubes serving to remind her of the circuit chips they had made in elementary school.
Almost directly below her, there was a demon horde. Focusing her enhanced vision, she could glimpse some of the giants on the tops of the buildings, on the tubes, inside the buildings themselves. Glimmers of primary color flashed intermittently, showing that it was being dealt with.
Asami leaned over to look too.
"Yeah," she said simply.
An officer was waiting for them at the other end, a normal female major who talked to them politely in Human Standard and pointed out the sights around them: the oceans, the chrome and silver peaks of the city of Singapore, its lights bright and shining in the evening sky, and, of course, the space elevator.
The major was Chinese, and, as they made the transfer to the underground tram, the sudden diversity of the people around them and distinct lack of Japanese signage—which obliged their enhancements to place subtitles in their field of view—began to drive home the fact that they really were somewhere else now.
Their moods were uplifted once they actually got on the elevator, which was of course something none of them had ever experienced. They shamelessly crowded the side of the platform to watch as it began its ascent, watching the horizon drop below them, starting to grow increasingly curved.
When that finally became boring, they explored the platform, visiting the central shop and examining the entertainment features built into the internal walls, carefully navigating past invisible barriers with internal maps.
The central shop was, to be honest, not particularly impressive. It had the standard synthesizer stand, where you could place an order and a robot would deliver it a few minutes later. Had they had more foresight, they could have ordered beforehand, but that didn't matter much.
They all got drinks and snacks; in Ryouko's case, she got the strawberry cake she had been vaguely craving. The tables in the area were surprisingly empty. She supposed that could be explained by the number of people who were receiving their food where they sat, usually somewhere near the edges. Again, that would have been a good idea.
The racks of items in the room next to the food dispensary, which had a couple of uniformed personnel milling about, contained all the souvenirs you would expect, everything from shirts with pictures of the space elevator to little toys to an antigrav model of the space elevator, complete with long cable and platform in mid‐transit. This last was actually pretty cool, but cost Allocs, which none of them felt like spending at that particular moment.
"Though it's weird to be picky about that," one of the other girls said. "Between the military and the MSY, we earn more than enough to get it easily."
"Yeah, but how on Earth are you going to take it with you?" a second girl asked.
Delivery can be easily arranged to the location of your choice, the shop intoned into their minds. Including personnel storage.
"I guess I can get one for my little brother," Asami mused, flicking the cable with her finger, after which it undulated sinusoidally briefly.
"What else are you going to spend it on?" the other girl commented.
"I guess," Asami said, still wavering.
Ryouko, for her part, was staring off into empty space, thinking about the tremendous amount of Allocs that were now in her name, one last gift from her parents, as an apology for a childhood lived with less wealth than was possible. What was she going to spend it on? She should have paid more attention to that colonial investment primer. Didn't MSY Finance have something where you could sign up and they'd take care of it for you?
They do, her TacComp thought, out of nowhere. It has an excellent performance record, for what it's worth. Some girls prefer to do it themselves, though. I can call up some material to learn, if you wish.
No, it's okay, she thought, wondering why it was commenting at a random moment like this.
Well, you didn't seem to be busy, the device thought, in response to her unverbalized question. I wanted a name.
You want a name? Ryouko thought, surprised. Do TacComps get names?
Version Twos do, her TacComp thought. Usually.
Uh, I haven't really had time to think of anything, she thought. Since this is sort of a random surprise.
I have suggestions, the device thought. Magellan, perhaps. Or Clarisse. Or van Rossum.
You think I should name you after Clarisse von Rossum? Or an exploration satellite?
That series of satellites is actually named after a famous explorer. And the woman was your childhood hero. It all makes sense.
Ryouko closed her eyes for a moment.
Fine, Clarisse, she thought. But if I end up not liking it, I'm changing it.
If you say so, Clarisse thought. I'll stop bothering you now.
"Hey, Shizuki‐san!" one of the girls said, getting her attention.
She turned and saw the girl holding up a black T‐shirt with a pleased expression.
"You should get this!" the girl said, grinning broadly.
On the front of the shirt was a decal of a white magical girl stabbing a green alien in the back, green ichor spurting out. Above and below it, a white caption asserted that "Teleporters do it from behind!"
"What does that even mean?" she asked, a moment later.
"Yeah, the central shop used to be a much bigger deal," the woman, who they had met on their way out, said. "But with the new travel restrictions, civilian traffic is way down. Most of us have been on these things plenty of times, so the novelty is gone. Still, it's a good place to get stuff for family, I guess."
She had overheard them commenting on how small the place was, in comparison with their expectations. A quick check revealed that she was a corporal from India which, okay, Ryouko could have guessed and deduced from the uniform, but she figured it was good to get in the habit of looking things up. Besides, maybe she was from a colony or something.
"What are you here for?" Asami asked.
"I'm getting something for my unit commander," she said. "She likes silly T‐shirts. She's a shockwave generator, which is sort of rare, but you don't hear us complaining."
The woman glanced around at them, then chuckled lightly.
"What is it?" Ryouko asked.
The woman shook her head.
"You're just all so—nevermind."
Still chuckling at something, the woman walked off.
When exploration and playing with the entertainment modules began to lose its novelty, Ryouko sat in a seat near the edge, watching the sky darken from familiar blue into the blackness of space, and she thought.
She had made a wish to reach the stars, and she was almost there.
That wasn't all there was to it, though. The Incubators weren't literal genies—everyone knew that. Indeed, they were almost the opposite of literal genies. They gave you exactly what you thought you wanted, even when you didn't word it properly.
"I wish I could leave Earth and explore this world," she had said.
She hadn't just wanted to leave Earth—nowadays, that was part and parcel of contracting. She had been more elaborate than that. She wanted the opportunity to explore, to see everything. Did she really have that? Not yet, she thought.
"I want to go where no one else has gone before and find my place in this universe."
There was a literal meaning to that, and that definitely wasn't fulfilled yet. But, in retrospect, there was an implicit meaning there, too. She wanted to be special, to be more than just an ordinary human.
In the past week, she had discovered that she was more unordinary than she had ever thought possible. Everything about her life and background seemed almost designed to make her different.
She was descended from multiple different extremely powerful MSY families. She carried a six‐sigma amount of novel mutations in her genome. Someone may have been trying to kill her. Her parents were scientists on an immense cloning project. She was mentored by Tomoe Mami and Sakura Kyouko, had a psychologist who catered to the extremely powerful, and an aunt who worked in Internal Security and had been mentored by Akemi Homura. She was, by a certain criterion, the most powerful teleporter alive. Her father had upgraded her TacComp to an unreleased Version Two. She had seen more of the supposed magical girl "Goddess" than anyone alive would admit to.
How much of it was her wish, and how much coincidence? How much had always been true, and how much was true only because of her wish? Could wishes change the past?
But then… wasn't her wish based on her past? Hadn't her family background increased her chance of potential? Had her wish caused her past, which then caused her wish? Or was it all coincidence, and that part of her wish had been true before she even made the wish? Was there even a difference?
There was her aunt Kuroi Nana, who had visited her as a child. She remembered that visit clearly now, but before this week she hadn't thought about it in years. The bracelet had sat in her drawer all those years, unworn, until she retrieved it. For much of her life, it might as well have never even happened.
It invited dark thoughts.
"Thinking about your wish?" Asami asked, seated next to her.
"Yeah," Ryouko said, a moment later. "You too?"
They left it at that.
As they approached the absolute apex of the space elevator cable, a full seven hours after beginning their ascent, the ground turned opaque again, and the remaining passengers on the platform crowded to the side staircases, each group bound for their own Navigator orbital transport. It surprised the others that there wasn't a starship waiting for them on the spot, but not Ryouko; she knew enough to expect the true arrangement: Navigator transports buried in the platform detaching and pushing off, each little push a subtle transfer of momentum, slowing the platform's ascent until, eventually, the platform turned around and began heading down the descent cable, inbound Navigators docking to replace the ones that had left.
Navigator engines had insufficient power to escape orbit, but it did not matter; this far up the cable, Coriolis forces provided enough horizontal velocity to set them free.
She had read about it all, had even played some of the video games, but had never been sure she would ever experience it.
They arranged themselves in varying positions around the spacecraft, Ryouko insistently grabbing a spot near the transparent forward viewing panels. Navigators were not particularly impressive spacecraft, and it showed in the utilitarian gray panels, relieved only by two Governance logos on both sides of the interior and the set of manual controls near the very front. There was no pilot, of course, and Navigators weren't even sentient or named.
But the viewscreen made up for it all. They piled near it to watch the other ships detaching from the top of the platform, hurtling off in slightly divergent directions, into the starry vacuum of space. Below, they could barely see the bright specks of orbital space stations.
Then they detached too, the platform's artificial gravity releasing its hold on the ship and their bodies, so that their stomachs lurched.
"Can you all feel that?" Asami demanded of them, her face spreading into a wide grin.
"Of course we can feel that!" one of the others said.
"No, I mean—" she began, then shook her head, still looking giddy, opening and closing her hands. "I—oh, wow—I got a new gravity sense with my power, but I had no idea what it feels like to be free of gravity entirely. I want to transform and play with it, but, no, that'd be a waste of power."
She said it out loud, to herself, without even looking at the rest of them, pushing herself into the air near the forward viewscreens. They looked at her in confusion, Ryouko included. This was not her usual behavior. She seemed almost… intoxicated.
Then Asami turned, lifted herself gently into the air, and, with an impish smile, shoved Ryouko toward the rear of the spacecraft.
There was a brief ricochet of pinballs as the momentum transfer sent Asami into the side wall near the left viewing panel and Ryouko careening into the girl next to her. The girl instinctively grabbed her, and consequently they both floated off backwards, the other girl behind them cannily launching herself out of the way—too quickly, and unused to the friction‐free inertia, she rammed the remaining fifth member of their group, the trajectories somehow working out to send one into the ceiling and the other into the floor.
"Okay, that is not safe," the one who had bounced off the ceiling commented, grabbing a handhold. "Calm yourself, Nakihara‐san."
Actually, the robotic mind of the Navigator thought, given how hard you girls are to injure, it is mostly harmless. In fact, my programming is instructed to encourage it, as stress relief. Just don't use too much force, or there will be body parts that need to be patched up.
"Really?" the girl bouncing off the floor asked.
"In that case—" the girl now floating next to Ryouko began.
But Ryouko was too fast, already using one of the handholds to rotate in place, grabbing the other girl and turning her into the direction of the girl near the ceiling, who reacted fast enough to redirect her towards Asami. A true natural, Asami caught her with arms outstretched, then kicked off from one of the side panels, sending them into a spin. Then she pulled the two of them together, accelerating the spin. This lasted until Ryouko surged forward and caught Asami, sending the two of them into a lurch into one wall, and the other girl into the other wall. It was like an elaborate living physics demonstration.
This kind of thing was reasonable fun for a while, but a few minutes later Ryouko peeled off to examine the manual flight controls near the front of the ship, querying the Navigator with her questions. She was particularly interested in a bulky set of handles that jutted out, which turned out to be a "steering wheel" that served as last resort piloting, in case even the mental command interface went down. She started toying with it, and then accepted an information upload request from the ship that asserted itself into her consciousness. That was when she learned she was holding it wrong.
She was thus the first to notice the stub‐nosed starship approaching them in the distance. The design of the ship did not make this an easy task, seeming to reject the solar reflection that otherwise seemed to be common, and lacking the telltale initial glimmer of light in the distance. However, as she was beginning to realize, it took a lot to evade the notice of a magical girl, especially one with expanded optical range.
Try shifting your eyes into the UV or infrared range, Clarisse thought. You probably still won't see much, but it's a useful ability to try out.
As promised, the ship was still not easy to see. Shifting into a different range meant that the UV or infrared frequency ranges were remapped onto her standard color vision. In this case, it meant very little, turning the panels and controls around her nearly black in both cases, though in infrared the rear of the approaching ship looked brighter.
But the stars—the stars looked entirely different. She spent a while there, staring and shifting back and forth between the different modes.
"Something's approaching," Asami said, appearing at her side. "I can feel—"
"Oh! A ship!" she exclaimed, thereby completely missing Ryouko's jump of surprise. Ryouko had instinctively glanced at her friend—and gotten a ghastly bright red infrared apparition instead.
"Oh, oh yeah," Ryouko recovered, hastily toggling back into the standard visual range as Asami reached forward with her hands, pantomiming feeling out the other ship's gravitational signature.
As the others also crowded near the front, the Navigator began narrating about the ship they were approaching.
The ship they were about to dock was the frigate HSS Spectre, commissioned nearly six years ago and now approaching the end of its service life. It wasn't that it was too damaged; it was simply out of date. Which was why it was being used to shuttle passengers.
As they approached for docking, they clustered around the exit door, eager to take their first steps onto a ship capable of FTL transit. Asami, especially, was looking as excited as Ryouko quietly felt.
The ships docked with a shudder, the navigator extending a docking causeway. They piled into the airlock, the door closing behind them. There was only a brief hiss of the frigate's atmosphere taking precedence, and then the opposing door opened.
There, they found the crew of the frigate assembled to greet them. There weren't many of them at all—indeed, even referring to them with a plural pronoun was misleading. There was the captain, the engineer, and the AI avatar of the ship, smiling and watching them from within—was that combat armor?
"We're on low complement," the captain, a dark‐skinned man in partial dress uniform, explained, looking almost embarrassed. "Ordinarily, there'd be a weapons officer, a medical specialist, and a pilot as well, but this isn't exactly the front lines. The two of us are on relaxation tour."
Ryouko nodded, taking a moment to look up the origins of both crew members. They were both colonials. It made sense.
The engineer nodded in agreement.
"We don't really have much to do," she said, shrugging, her voice slightly accented in a way Ryouko had never heard before. "Want a tour?"
That was an obvious yes, especially from Ryouko, who had started to stare at the airlock mechanism. Honestly, it was a bit of a cramped ship, but it was a frigate, so that made sense. The walls were mostly default white, but several regions had changed themselves to be differently colored, or were currently displaying text or images. Fairly standard.
"If I may interject," the AI said, walking up to them. "If anyone is going to be running a tour of my body, it's me. You two can follow if you want, but I'll be the one talking."
It didn't even bother to pretend to walk around the others, instead walking straight through the engineer to face them, holographic body shimmering and wavering.
For most of them, direct interaction with an AI was a rare opportunity, and most of them openly stared at the avatar, with its female form, light‐weight combat armor, sniper rifle holstered on the back, some sort of goggles, and disconcerting I/O eyeball. The AI wasn't wearing the customary helmet, though, probably because it got in the way of talking. It appeared to have long hair, but most was tucked into the suit. The suit made it difficult to tell chest size—and Ryouko immediately felt bad for trying to check.
Ryouko had a hard time placing the avatar's ethnicity, with its generic black hair and brown eyes. Then she realized it had little relevance. It stung that the avatar was taller than her, but she couldn't complain about that too much.
"Stealth combat armor, Spec Ops class, for the few Human commandos that still exist," the AI explained, rematerializing the rifle in her hand and making a show of inspecting it. "Not that I have access to the latest model specs. It's just a hobby of mine; obviously, I'm a starship, so this has zero relevance to me."
"She spends her spare time watching commando movies," the captain said, looking at the avatar sidelong. "I have no idea how a starship ended up being so obsessed with ground combat."
"I'm sorry, it's just boring shuttling passengers back and forth all the time," the AI said, giving the captain a look. "What else am I supposed to do, now that I'm obsolete? And you would have no idea what I watch if I didn't tell you."
"Yes, all the time," the engineer said dryly. "In way too much detail."
"Excuse me," Ryouko interjected. "I'm sorry if this is a rude question, but, uh, you said that you're obsolete. What does that mean? What's going to happen to you?"
A sudden, awkward silence descended, almost as if she had just mentioned a deceased relative. The AI's demeanor visibly slumped, while the other two humans looked away.
Wow, that was not a good question to ask, Ryouko instantly regretted.
"Well, there's a good chance I can be retrained and reprogrammed for a new ship," Spectre said, fiddling with the gun nervously. "But it really sucks having to abandon your old body. I wish they'd just keep doing upgrades, but at a certain point the changes just become too big, so they have to decommission us. You develop an attachment, you know? You girls especially should know what I'm talking about."
Four of the five magical girls present chuckled nervously, not sure what the AI was trying to say. Ryouko stared, wondering if AIs were generally this loose‐lipped.
The captain cleared his throat loudly.
"Oh, right, and there's a small chance I'll be retired and reprogrammed for civilian life," the AI diverted. "That'd be terrible. We all dread being retired. I don't know what I'd do with myself."
"For what it's worth," the engineer commented, "they say AIs with hobbies unrelated to their main job tend to manage the conversion a lot better. Better psychologically, and such."
The AI raised its hand.
"We've dallied enough," it said. "I don't want to talk about this. Let's start the tour."
Ryouko looked suitably shame‐faced for the social faux pas.
"So this is the command center," the AI said, gesturing at a recessed area to their right with numerous view screens, two chairs, and numerous instrument panels. "This is where the captain and hypothetical pilot spend most of their time. It's important because this area contains many of the manual controls and displays, in case the cortical transmission systems aren't functioning, and in case I lose parts of my core function."
Without prompting, Ryouko's vision of the area was suddenly highlighted and labeled with a large number of tags, describing each of the controls and screens.
The captain nodded at them, and headed for his chair, apparently not intending to follow the rest of the tour. The engineer also left them, heading for the back of the ship.
"In this area, we have the passage to the engineering areas," the AI said, turning and pointing down a narrow corridor than ran to the back of the ship. "We'll be going there later, but over here is my medical bay."
It pointed into a cramped room stocked with exactly two examination chairs, two surgical tables, and four stabilization tubes. Again, the tag labels appeared in her vision.
"In active combat, it is the duty of the entire fleet to provide medical support to members of the Magi Cæli. That would be my part of the contribution, if I were part of a fleet in combat. Incidentally, if any of you need any grief cubes, I have a few stored there for this trip."
They made suitably appreciative comments.
"On the other side is the recreation room," the AI said, "which has beds for napping, a privacy room, and some minor entertainment modules. The crew uses it, but it wouldn't have been designed in without the MC in mind. Starship personnel are expected to function mostly without sleep, as I'm sure you're aware. On a frigate like me, not even the captain has his own room. Space is important; every meter of space is more weight to lug around, and every increase in size makes it easier to hit you. I like to think I'm agile."
The avatar took them down the narrow corridor they had seen earlier, but turned into a side area halfway through.
"Unfortunately, my gunnery control room isn't as impressive as I'd like," she said, gesturing at an austere room with a viewscreen, a few access panels, instrument panels, and a chair. "Most of the actual hardware can only be reached by going through those access panels…"—it pointed at said panels—"…and I'd really rather not have you in there. No offense."
They murmured their understanding.
The AI rubbed the weapons officer's chair wistfully.
"I remember my last weapons officer," she said. "I always liked that girl. Died when I lost a quarter of my hull to those damn interceptors. We had some good times. Those were the days."
It stood there in silence, head bowed, as the moment stretched out, becoming distinctly uncomfortable and causing the rest of them to sneak glances at each other.
Then, without warning, the AI stood up and headed out of the room, and they had to hurry to follow her back out into the corridor.
"And now for the best part," the AI said, rubbing her gloved hands, obvious pride starting to glow on her face. "The FTL core. It's very visually impressive."
They advanced down the corridor, an eerie blue and ultraviolet glow starting to emanate from somewhere in front of them, and then the corridor expanded instantly into the nearly spherical core room, not really a large room, but gigantic by the standards of this ship. They could see that the glow had been coming from the FTL core, which loomed over them at their right, a large sphere elevated upward by a complicated arrangement of service tubes.
The engineer, who was seated in her chair looking bored, looked up at their approach and smiled, face silhouetted by the Cherenkov radiation of the exotic matter containment systems.
"We don't keep the main core in direct line with the corridor, in case of projectile fragments," she said. "I admit it'd look cooler to have everything in a line, but we just can't do that."
"By default the doors are kept open," the AI added. "They're only closed in the event of a blast or uncontained hull breach. That way, if there's a power failure, no one will be trapped in any one room."
"Are we already FTL?" Asami asked. "I can sense something happening gravitationally, but I thought it would be more intense than this."
The AI tilted its head, perhaps surprised by the mention of her sensing gravitational changes, but said:
"Not quite yet," it said. "I'm still ramping up. It'll get more intense later, I promise."
There was no jump to FTL speed, as was always heavily stressed in school for no reason Ryouko could understand. Instead, there was a smooth acceleration, as space‐time around the ship was remolded. Of course that was how it would work. It was absurd to think it could happen any other way.
For a long moment, they stood there, admiring the blue and ultraviolet emanating from junctions in the metal‐sheathed core. Ryouko couldn't take her eyes off it; there was something about it that seemed to draw her in. She could see… what? Nothing. It was just an engine core. But apparitions seemed to dance at the edge of her vision, strange patterns of light that gave her the sense that there was something there.
She shook her head to clear it. The events of the day were getting to her.
"Ryouko‐chan!" Asami exclaimed, then, the two of them already on diminutive terms.
"Hmm?" she vocalized, turning away from staring at the FTL engine to look at her friend, only to find that the rest of them, including the AI, were staring at her.
No, not at her face. At her… hand?
"Your soul gem!" Asami said, pointing at Ryouko's hand. "Is something wrong? What the heck's going on with it?"
Ryouko raised her hand then, startled, summoned the full gem into the palm of her hand, staring at it, wondering what this sign meant.
It was glowing, like a green star in the sky.