Magical Matter Manipulation (colloquial: "modding") falls into three broadly defined classes, between which there can be significant overlap.
Conjuration is the creation of physical objects de novo and is practiced by every magical girl to at least some degree, for instance in the summoning of costumes or weapons.
Adjustment is the changing of the properties of an existing object, rendering it different in shape, composition, or structure, but without necessarily imbuing the object with any magical properties.
Enchantment is the granting of magical properties to a particular object, granting the object non‐standard physical properties.
All such manipulation may be performed on either a temporary or a permanent basis. The synthesis of matter from energy is costly, and the vast majority of manipulation is temporary, creating objects or performing modifications that disappear or revert when no longer needed. Such manipulations impose a continuous soul gem cost, but for short durations of time, and are far more cost‐effective than attempting to perform a permanent modification.
The magical costs of matter manipulation can be divided into three parts. First is the summoning cost, which is essentially the pure matter‐energy cost of performing the manipulation. This is higher for permanent manipulations than temporary manipulations, is highest in conjurations, and lowest in adjustments.
Second is the upkeep cost, the cost associated with using or maintaining the manipulation. This is associated fairly uniformly with all temporary manipulations, while generally being absent from permanent manipulations, with the notable exception that permanently enchanted objects cost magic to use, though they do not cost magic to maintain. Notably, upkeep cost often drops steeply with practice repeatedly summoning the same object, with most brand‐new girls capable of summoning at least a primary weapon cheaply.
Finally, there is a complexity cost, associated with the difficulty of imposing complex order onto an object. It is in some ways analogous to an entropic cost. The more intricate an object, the more technologically advanced, or the more magically arcane, the greater the amount of time a mage must take performing the modification, and the greater the amount of energy used in keeping the object in a magically pliable state during this time. This cost is dependent heavily on the skill, intelligence, and experience of the mage performing the modification.
Indeed, it is the complexity cost that provides much of the motivation for the permanent modification of objects, since it is a pointless waste of effort to build a temporary, vastly complex object. Permanent conjuration is rare, with most mages preferring the easier route of modifying an existing, similar object. Permanent adjustment was primarily used in the replication of high‐end equipment, and is now used by researchers attempting to push the technological envelope, though there was a brief vogue during the early MSY period of mages attempting to replicate entertainment devices for personal use.
But it is permanent enchantment that is the most difficult and most valuable of modification tasks, with even the simplest permanent magical artifacts taking a prodigious amount of time and skill to construct. Consequently, such artifacts are rare, and rarely exit MSY secret storage. In the right hands, though, they can be extraordinarily valuable, despite their soul gem usage costs, because of their ability to grant the girls who wield them effective secondary powers that may have nothing to do with their primary power.
— "Magical Girl Introductory Manual," excerpt.
Mobility, flexibility, versatility, responsiveness; every one of these is an invaluable asset in a war in which, all too often, the advantage of firepower lies with the enemy.
— "Field Command's Tactical Manual," opening sentence.
The counter‐counterattack, when it came, was hardly a surprise. The aliens still tried for surprise, though, because it was difficult to tell when a Human force had clairvoyant support. They did, though, and knew the attack was coming long before it happened.
The attack was devastating anyway. It always was. No one could match the squid in sheer brute force. The infantry died like flies, but army tactical doctrine was clear: hang on, buy time, keep the magical girls alive, and prepare a counterpunch.
Occasionally, if magical girl resources in the area were limited, that meant that they would withdraw to the rear for safety, and possibly to help prepare the counterpunch. Not here, though; they had the reserves necessary to counterpunch without pulling frontline platoons back, so they stayed committed to the front, doing their best to help contain breaches in the line. Ryouko would be expected to eschew risky direct attack tactics in favor of what the models said was a much more effective use of her power: "mobility enhancement", a euphemism designed to make the more blood‐thirsty teleporters feel better about themselves.
Ryouko had been told that she fell into that category, but the euphemism failed to make her feel any more dignified. A part of her constantly missed the satisfaction of successfully tearing targets in half with her teleport, or eviscerating them with her arrows. Sometimes, she reflected that since the aliens were clearly sentient, this meant she enjoyed killing.
She tried not to think about that much.
Still, though, she kept her complaints to herself, because it was palpably obvious how she was contributing to the battle. Every infantryman or magical girl or tank crew she bailed out of a hopeless situation was a life saved, just as much as if she had been a healer reattaching their heads, and her ability to do that enabled much bolder tactics from those in the area, such as counterattacking directly into the full fury of the alien assault. Her own platoon, in particular, was rather prone to over‐aggressiveness, though her second‐in‐command kept them from relying on her too much.
Still, she couldn't save everyone. The news that Sanchez was dead came as a minor gut punch. She tried to stay detached, thinking only that she would have to rearrange her promotion short list, but she had to admit it bothered her a little.
On the attack, it simply wasn't efficient for her to appear and try to do damage on her own. Far better to show up with others more capable of close‐range combat, or with much heavier damage outputs, while she personally saved her energy for an endless series of teleports. It was also, she had to admit, much safer.
There was also the value of maneuverability. Again and again, she was called upon to shift squads from position to position, from low ground to high ground, from strongpoint to weakpoint, to stabilize the line or, often, just to get things done faster. Her own platoon was considered an Extremely High Mobility unit, meaning that it was well within her power to transport the entire unit far faster than they could possibly move otherwise, even if it took her a tiresome number of trips to do so. Because of this, they rarely spent extended time in defensive positions, and were always being shifted back and forth.
It was, frankly, exhausting. Ryouko was constantly pushing the limits of how often she could teleport, and only Clarisse's monitoring gave her any idea how many grief cubes she was going through. It vastly exceeded how many she could have obtained from even the most productive of demon hunting runs.
Their counterpunch would never happen.
"Major alien fleet has arrived in star system. There are insufficient fleet resources in the vicinity to effectively contest. Planetary evacuation order has been issued."
"Orbital defenses significantly compromised. Orbital bombardment inbound."
"Orbital defense station VIII‐Delta no longer responsive… Armor Company E coming under heavy orbital bombardment and scattering for self‐protection; will be unable to help contain breaches… Battalion VII to cancel tactical counterattack and fall back to Hill 62…"
Evacuation meant, of course, that teleporters and their associated companies and battalions would take a starring role, pulling MGs back to transport ships as fast as possible, with only the slightest attention to paid to the impact on the remaining troops. Defense lines contracted as much as possible while trying not to present obvious bombardment targets. Grief cube supply lines took on sudden enormous priority. In short, the military focused on evacuating its core assets at the expense of everything else.
And Ryouko wouldn't be doing any of the fighting. Instead, she would be teleporting constantly back and forth with members of her platoon and other MGs, pulling out MG after MG of her corps to evacuation areas. It bothered her, on some deep level. It was also a bit like running a marathon without implant support.
She appeared this time next to an artillery piece, invisible again, pressing her stealth to last just a little bit longer. With her, she brought the entirety of the surviving members of Squad B, which was down to five members, and several other MGs of her battalion, her designated defenders.
This group of artillery must survive! a telepathic voice shouted at her the moment she arrived. Without it, the sector will collapse!
This came from a girl in front of them, levitated high enough in the air that she was half‐concealed by the tangled mess of the greenery above, high enough that she could look down upon the canopy from within the faint yellow glow that enveloped her. She seemed dangerously exposed, and Ryouko zoomed in to get a better look, while some of the other girls advanced their way up the trees in the area, one running up the length of one of the artillery gun barrels.
It no longer matters, Zhen, her patrol commander, responded. The sector is now clear of MGs. You're the last. Check your updated map.
The girl in question didn't respond immediately, instead turning mid‐air and looking somewhere behind her. A brief glow in her eyes, a gesture of the hands, and an angry yellow fireball appeared in the sky in the distance, landing explosively in the ground.
I can't leave, she thought. My men are down there.
Without you to guard, Zhen argued, they'll be more free to withdraw in an orderly—
The ground shifted noticeably underneath them, sending a cascade of leaves floating out of the sky.
Ryouko and the others glanced automatically at Meiqing, before realizing that that made little sense.
They tensed, looking around hastily. Orbital bombardment? No, that would be more sustained. This was—
Over there, the girl in the sky thought.
They turned in unison to face a new marker that had suddenly appeared on their maps, relayed directly from her.
Non‐conventional source. Unknown class. Visual estimate of yield: 1 Megaton.
Now they could all see the obvious mushroom cloud rising in the distance, and feel the faint heat radiated from its direction. Heat… and something else. EM radiation.
Look at that estimated location, Asami thought, clearly shocked. Aren't some of our battalion in that sector? Who do you think set it off?
Either someone's antinuclear defenses fell down on the job, or someone decided to throw some antimatter at the problem, Ryouko thought, grimly.
Did we even have antimatter on this planet? Asami thought.
No idea, Meiqing thought.
A flash of yellow light landed next to Ryouko, drawing their attention.
As they turned to look, the light solidified back into the girl they had seen up in the sky.
"I'll go," she said simply.
Second Division assumes command of units of former Fourth Division… Sixth Division to hold Yucatan‐Point 514 front as long as possible… Support Company D to withdraw to Point 118… updated best‐knowledge command structure is as follows…
The orange girl leapt impossibly high into the sky, almost a blur even to Ryouko's eyes. She twirled in mid‐air, sliced an alien missile clean in half, then propelled herself back to the ground so she wouldn't stay in the air as a target.
I'm not sure how much longer we can keep this up, Ngo Thi An thought, from somewhere within their group. My soul gem is draining too fast. Soon we'll have no more grief cubes.
We'll make do with what we have, Zhen thought. We have to. The reserves are empty. Keep your cool. Remember your training.
Zhen was their new battalion commander, now that Elena Santiago was dead, caught in the nuclear blast, which had decidedly not been friendly. It was shocking, to think of the Lieutenant Colonel as dead, but Ryouko refused to let herself dwell. She couldn't; there was just no time.
We must establish drone contact with the troops in this pocket, Zhen continued, talking as a way of keeping them all calm. There are at least two mages trapped within this pocket. We must find them. If we search systematically—
She cut off, sensing, as they all did, the incoming shockwave.
Orbital artillery! someone broadcast, unnecessarily.
As a teleporter, Ryouko was among the best equipped to dodge such an attack, but she had a duty, an obligation to try to get the others out as well. She emptied her mind, her TacComp plotting out an optimal extraction‐teleport pattern—move from group of girls to group of girls, picking up three or four and pulling them out of the radius of the bombardment strike, so that she carried as many as once without being forced to stand too long in one spot, with minimal travel distance in between. No time for touching; it would be done through the ground.
And a brace of trees exploded in splintering lumber directly in front of her, but it was okay; it was okay because it hadn't landed on top of her, or she would have been forced to continue and the wide‐eyed Asami in front of her would be dead.
And she found the orange girl with a sword, watching the sky with wide eyes, hoping she could dodge fast enough. They looked at each other.
She found Meiqing hidden under a half‐dome of earth, surroundings dank and gloomy, her face covered in dirt.
It seemed interminable.
Two casualties, Clarisse thought, once it was over. Susana Miller is dead. Zhen is dead. She designated the teleporter—you—as her successor, in case of incapacitation. It—Wait.
Clarisse stopped, and there was no need to explain why. Ryouko had already teleported where she needed to, carrying two other girls in tow.
They found Ngo Thi An kneeling in the soil staring at her own hands. Next to her, a girl lay unconscious on the ground—one of the girls they had been looking for.
The healer next to Ryouko crouched down and thrust forward a grief cube, to tend to Ngo, whose status was flashing critical in their monitors, but it was too late; the girl's body was already fading before their eyes.
She was disabled by one of the shockwaves… I thought I could protect her, Ngo the barrier generator thought, one last time. I guess I didn't have enough juice.
When the girl vanished entirely, the girl with the grief cube murmured some sort of prayer and moved to work on the other girl, prone on the ground.
Ryouko blinked away tears. She had to hold on.
What now? Meiqing thought, somewhere distant, without bothering to append "acting‐Commander".
I–I designated Nakihara Asami as my successor, she thought. And—
She thought desperately about what had just happened, their three casualties, the girl injured in front of them, the second girl that was supposed to be here somewhere, the pocket that had probably been critically compromised by the bombardment—
We're getting out of here, she thought. To me.
Defend the evacuation shuttles at all costs… remaining units are reminded of their oaths and families… Humanity salutes your sacrifice.
Is that the last of them? Ryouko thought. Are we done?
We've still got units stranded throughout the region, Clarisse thought, repeating what she already knew. But the MGs are out. It's time for the evac teams to pull out.
Ryouko grabbed her last remaining grenades, enchanted them, and shotput them in the general direction of some alien infantry, trusting her magical guidance to navigate them through the trees and underbrush.
We have to hold! she thought, both telepathically and over all her command channels. This whole sector is now crawling with the enemy. Buy me time to pull you guys out!
She threw up a group countdown timer, indicating how long she estimated it would take her to charge up to travel the necessary distance.
Without explicit acknowledgment, the others moved to fulfill her request, Meiqing raising a giant wall of earth to delay the alien advance, Asami lifting herself into the air and gesturing at trees, snapping them to form more of the barricade. Then, with a mutual effort, they shoved the giant mass down onto an advancing alien column. Hopefully it would hold.
Several others took final potshots, then headed for her as the timer wound down.
Without even waiting for them all to establish direct contact, she blinked away the moment a nearly maximal number of girls approached her. She appeared in the evacuation zone, dozens of kilometers away, directly in front of one of the shuttles, a layer of teleported dirt now covering the ground.
She took a moment to look around, looking at the others while charging up for the jump back, laboring against a deep sense of tiredness that was probably due to her darkening soul gem.
Then she went back for the rest.
The first thing she saw was Asami—or rather, pieces of her—falling out of the sky.
She instinctively stepped forward, eyes widening as she tried to zoom in.
Before she could try to teleport upwards, though, the knowledge hit her, confirmed by local transmissions—she was dead.
Initiating low‐level emotional suppression, Clarisse thought, before she even had time to think.
A curious sense of detachment wafted through her, so that even as she was struck by the shock, anger, and pain, she was able to force herself to stop and evaluate her situation, even as her friend's body began to land in the moss with muted, yet sickening, thuds.
She didn't question Clarisse's decision, even if it was likely to substantially reduce her ability to draw on her soul gem's power. If even now a part of her wanted to charge into the nearest clump of aliens and kill everything until there was nothing left to kill… then it was unlikely that her unmoderated reaction would have been well‐reasoned, especially given that her soul gem—now at approximately 35%—was starting to weigh on her reasoning abilities.
She teleported to cover somewhere to her right, getting out of the open, and observed the situation. A mass of heavy alien armor had arrived, blasting their way through and hovering over the barricade as if it were nothing, too much firepower too suddenly for Asami to survive, even with her soul gem armor.
The lead tanks turned their bulbous laser turrets in her direction, starting to glow with a charge—
Suddenly, it shattered in a barrage of explosions, sending up the debris and sparks of sudden forcefield failure.
Go! Get out of here! one of the infantry exhorted, armored frame lifting one of the heavy anti‐tank lasers. We'll cover you!
Ryouko didn't bother asking where the air support was. Most of it was in pieces on the jungle floor.
The few remaining magical girls in the area rapidly converged on her position. She noted that most of them were also under emotional suppression.
Ryouko issued mental orders, ordering all the infantry, both from her platoon and others, in her immediate proximity to converge. She would take as many as she could, then come back from the rest.
No, she was surprised to hear her warrant officer say. Belay that. The situation is too hot. We can't shorten our perimeter without presenting a target for bombardment. Hold your positions. Get out of here, sir. Respectfully.
The emotion of the voice shone through clearly in the content and volume of the words, despite the much more substantial combat dampening that the infantry practically never turned off.
There's still time on the counter, Ryouko said, shocked, still trying to prepare a teleport. I am ordering—
No, the man responded. That's the wrong order, and you know it. You're supposed to leave us. So leave us. Don't come back.
But I can't— Ryouko began.
We are here because we have nothing left to us, the man said. We are here because we decided we would give our lives, if necessary. We are the dead; you are not.
He's right, Meiqing thought, appearing at Ryouko's side. You know he's right. Think about everyone else who had to leave their men behind today.
Ryouko clenched her teeth, a twinge of emotion piercing into her mind, defying the emotional suppression.
"Asami‐chan is dead," she said out loud, without realized she had slipped into her native Japanese. "She's dead, and I can't even get her body. So many dead. My men are counting on me. I can't—"
"I know," Meiqing said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder, Japanese stilted from instant translation. "I left mine behind at Tupi. But we have to go. They're counting on you to live."
Ryouko nodded, head down, still charging a teleport.
"Things keep happening and I don't even have time to think about what happened," she said. "My soul gem—is my soul gem failing? Maybe that's it."
Get that armor off their backs! the sergeant shouted, somewhere distant. I don't care what it takes! You know what is expected of you. We will fight to the last joule and the last round. Until then, you do not have my permission to die. Lieutenant, don't come back. You hear me? Don't come—
And then she blinked out.
She fell onto her knees, and caught a brief blurry glimpse of the bottom of the evacuation shuttle.
〈Exit to lobby.〉
Ryouko's eyes snapped open, and for a brief moment she was essentially paralyzed in her chair, staring up the girl looking down at her with profound confusion.
Steady, Clarisse counseled. Steady. It will all make sense in a moment.
Then it all came rushing back. Memories kept forcibly suppressed by constant stimulation reemerged, while others that had never really existed faded away, except for—what did they call it? A meta‐memory. The memory of a memory.
It all made sense, all of a sudden. The headaches, the creeping sense of almost‐déjà vu that had bothered her every time she came close to thinking about the truth, or thought too hard about events that had never really happened.
Recalibration complete, Clarisse thought.
Ryouko immediately jumped out of her wooden chair, smothering Asami with a deep embrace.
"You're alive!" she said.
"Ah, yes," Asami said, surprised by the unexpected intimacy.
"Are–are you fully recalibrated?" she asked, skeptical, referring to the process of dampening the emotional importance of the false memories. "That wasn't real—"
"Yeah, I know," Ryouko said, releasing the other girl but holding onto her shoulders. "Just needed to burn off some emotional juice."
Then she dropped her arms, realizing how tired she was.
"I hate these damn things," she said. "They're terrible, and I'm exhausted."
"I know," Asami said. "We should go sleep. I hung around to wait for you. It was only a couple of seconds, actually."
Ryouko took a moment to look around, at the nondescript wooden waiting room that served as a simulation transition lobby, in case you exited a simulation "poorly"—for instance, in the middle of a punch or scream, though with modern techniques it was mostly a theoretical risk. Some people decorated or changed their personal lobbies, but she had yet to bother. She had yet to enter a VR simulation on her own initiative, so she had yet to have any need to hang around in her lobby, fiddling with settings or whatnot.
She took a breath, nodding at the other girl.
Then they dissolved.
Ryouko found herself in yet another chair, this time a pitch‐black VR chair, just one of many that filled the room she was in, arrayed in rows.
She rubbed the back of her neck where the I/O devices had only recently detached, stretched her arms out above her head, then pulled a lollipop out of her mouth. It was fresh; someone had replaced it.
She stood up.
"What was it like, dying in the simulation?" she asked, turning to the girl getting up from the chair to her right. "Without any idea that it was fake, I mean."
She personally had never had that experience.
Asami furrowed her brow for a moment, putting her hand to her chin.
"Not that bad," she said, finally. "They deliberately don't simulate the process in any detail; they just sort of kick you out, and it was an instantaneous shatter anyway. That's what my TacComp said. Of course, it might have helped that it was pumping emergency neurotransmitters to keep me from panicking when I woke. I was sort of numb."
Asami turned her head, and Ryouko followed her gaze to a girl who was apparently standing next to them. How long had she been there?
Meiqing looked at the two of them, then raised both her hands, palm outward.
"I just wanted to reassure you that I can keep things to myself. Let's have lunch together later, okay?"
"Sure," Ryouko said, returning the offer of friendship.
"I'm going to go sleep," the girl said. "I'm exhausted."
"Yeah, us too," Ryouko said.
The girl turned and walked away, nodding at Elena Santiago, standing by the door. She was one of the officers who oversaw the process.
In the late stages of training, they had been running these simulations nearly nonstop, alternating long stretches of repeated runs with occasional multi‐hour sleep breaks. Simulations run in accelerated time were physically and mentally draining, and the only way to sustain the pace was to use magic to restore fitness between simulations.
Sleeping during the breaks was not mandatory, but was strongly recommended, and most girls followed the recommendation. There was still the occasional person who went crazy after too long with no sleep, and while there was no good direct evidence that one caused the other, and the individuals in question were generally unstable to start with, the correlation was apparent enough for the military to issue the recommendation. No one wanted to test whether a month in simulation would have the same effect, even with magic to help make things better.
Thinking back to what happened during simulations was like viewing your own past through an extra sepia filter. The false memories and experiences given to you within a simulation were designed to be at least superficially plausible—Ryouko thought that it was like experiencing a possible future. Because of this, thinking back to simulations was a little bit like viewing someone else's memories. The Ryouko in the simulation had had a long history of caring for and fighting with her platoon. Even if on close inspection the full emotional depth was missing, it had colored and informed her actions.
Despite the arguably lower quality of the memories, their collective effect was palpable. They had spent the equivalent of nearly a month of time fighting and working together, in hundreds of different situations. In that time, she had seen others die, seen others break down, and had held multiple hours‐long conversations with Asami, prodding decorative campfires with sticks, in the long interludes between battles. She had watched relationships between the others made and broken and remade again, the interpersonal dynamics somehow consistent over dozens of wildly differing scenarios.
The training manuals said that training cohorts, or members of them, at least, often bonded deeply, the resulting camaraderie carrying over long after the training period ended. Ryouko could definitely believe that now, and she found herself thinking about Asaka, Patricia, and Alice. Suddenly the whole story made a lot more sense. She suspected that the simulation planners deliberately clustered compatible girls together with greater than random frequency.
Come think of it, I've been running into Meiqing rather frequently, she thought.
"What do you suppose she meant by the keeping things to herself comment?" Asami asked, when Meiqing finally left earshot.
"I'd rather not talk about it," Ryouko said, shaking her head. "Let's just go."
They had ended up roommates, which Ryouko decidedly refused to believe was a coincidence.
"You know," Asami said, as they walked down the hall, passing other exhausted‐looking girls heading for their respective rooms. "I've been thinking about something, so I asked my TacComp. I wasn't sure how they were faking magical telepathy, since we can tell the difference from the other kind. It turns out: they're not faking anything. We do it the same way we always do, but from our chairs, outside the simulation. That's pretty clever."
"Yeah, that's interesting," Ryouko said blandly, not wanting to point out that she had asked that particular question hours ago—though those hours were really more like weeks. She did wonder how exactly they accelerated the telepathy…
Passing a window, she slowed to a stop. Here at the training center, they were far from New Athens's city centers, or even their suburbs. Instead, the view presented to her was of idyllic farmland. In the foreground, there were practice areas and firing ranges. In the background were enormous fields of genetically‐engineered wheat waving in the wind, carefully tended to by machines. When she and Asami had first seen it, they had stopped and stared; it had been such a novel sight to someone from the cities of Earth, used to eating synthesized food. Indeed, it turned out that synthesized food was only common on Earth, and to some degree on the other Core Worlds. Without Earth's elaborate setup of solar‐orbiting satellites, energy wasn't freely available enough to justify the expense.
She had seen very little of this world except what they had seen from their landing shuttle and the training facility, but she could already tell that the colonies were very different from Earth.
It was disappointing, then, that she had spent all the time since then cooped up in this training center.
They had been here nearly a week. The week had been filled to the absolute brim with training exercises, there being no need for any of them to sleep extensively. First had come the cortical datadump, designed to fill them with the basic terminology and weapons knowledge they would need to function. It had been so large it required special equipment to transmit efficiently, and had left them reeling with brains full of newfound knowledge.
Then came skills instruction, the new girls separated into groups by skill category, to spend quality accelerated simulation time with instructors who had their particular powerset, learning the ins and outs of effective tactics used by others of their class, combined with exhortations to experiment when possible, both in simulations and on the practice grounds. They had learned about the skills database, which contained recorded data about the maneuvers used by magical girls past.
Back in the real world, they had been taught the basics of extending their magical powers, with each of them expected to learn a few basic skills, if they did not already have them: low‐level self‐propulsion, a magically charged melee attack. Then, for those with particular affinities, further extensions: minor clairvoyance to enhance dodging, the beginnings of telekinesis, projecting waves of force from melee weapons, modifying your projectiles to home in on targets, basic enchantment, and so forth.
They were also instructed briefly on experimentation; Ryouko, in particular, spent time trying to understand why her soul gem had glowed near the starship core. She got Asami to try her best to replicate the relevant gravitational conditions and, while they managed to induce a faint glow, it brought her little closer to the answer.
Finally, they were taught to use their magic to overcome minor physical limitations such as, for instance, mental exhaustion. They were forced to stay underwater, and use their magic to extract oxygen from the water. They were placed in vacuum chambers, and carefully tutored in preventing the formation of inconvenient internal gas bubbles, on repairing anoxic damage, and on protecting soft tissues; ideally, they would conjure the necessary oxygen, but that training would be saved for those joining the MC.
That went on for nearly three days straight, and then it was back into simulation time, with its endless variety of lessons and classroom instruction. Test‐firing weapons, practice on a virtual firing range, culminating in lessons on command and control, which focused a lot more on interhuman interaction than she would have expected. These were followed by exercises commanding a virtual platoon in the field, along with practice maneuvering and coordinating with each other. They then held full‐fledged skirmishes, commanding units and fighting against both each other and simulated aliens, secure in the knowledge that death in the simulation would be painless.
Finally, the part they had quietly dreaded: realistic simulation, with memories fabricated. Incredibly illegal outside a military context, the military had in fact seized the technology from illegal VR gamers.
Exiting her reverie, Ryouko looked up.
The sky of New Athens was a pristine blue. Too blue, in fact, from a combination of a slightly different atmosphere and slightly different solar output. The sun seemed too harsh, and the length of day was different, too, and it was still strange adjusting to the disparity between local time and absolute Earth time, which was calibrated based on FTL signals. She had never quite grasped how that worked with regards to relativity and causality.
"You're always thinking about something," Asami said, looking at her from the corner of her eye. "Just enjoy the beautiful day."
"Yeah," Ryouko agreed.
So if I may interrupt your descent into unconsciousness, Clarisse began. I thought you might want some entertainment before your nap. Well, maybe entertainment. Your actual reaction will be informative to my prediction subroutines.
Ryouko had just collapsed into her bed, clothing on, with every intention of falling asleep on the spot. She rolled over, slightly annoyed.
What is it?
Get Nakihara‐san's attention, the device thought. You can read the messages together. I think it'll be enlightening.
Read the messages together, Ryouko thought flatly, doing her best to convey her skepticism.
Yes, Clarisse thought.
Ryouko thought about resisting, then decided it wasn't worth it. She sat up, allowing the covers to slide down the front of her shirt. She looked over at the girl in the bed on the other side of the narrow room, lying facing the opposite wall. Her eyes wandered onto their two dress uniforms stacked on the desk: neat, compact, and almost unused. Asami had insisted earlier on dressing up and taking pictures to send home. Ryouko wondered when, if ever, magical girls ever wore the damn things.
Next to the uniforms, two CubeBots peered at her curiously, one perched on top of the other for no apparent reason. Ryouko had thought herself unusual for bringing one, but it turned out that a surprising number of the new recruits had done so as well. No wonder her request to bring it had gone through so easily.
She's not asleep, Clarisse thought. I can tell from the infrared.
Alright, geez, Ryouko thought, admitting she had been procrastinating.
"Asami‐chan," she said.
The girl made an annoyed sleepy noise, before turning over and looking at her with half‐opened eyes.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I have something to show you. Get up."
Asami sat up slowly, untied hair falling over her eyes.
"This better be exciting," she mumbled, finally, sheets halfway up her body.
"Clarisse says it is."
The girl pushed her way out of her bedsheets, bare feet contacting the carpeting. Unlike Ryouko, Asami made a point of changing into pajamas before each and every nap.
Asami strode the few steps over to Ryouko's bed and sat down next to her.
"Well, what is it?" she asked.
Ryouko was a bit bothered by the closeness, but at least she had nothing to be jealous of.
She felt Asami's gaze on her, suddenly. She hadn't noticed her staring, had she?
"Is something the matter?" Ryouko asked, deciding to bluff it out.
"Oh, no, nothing," Asami said, looking down. "I was just wondering what was taking you so long."
Ryouko turned around on her bed, putting her legs up, staring meaningfully at the wall that had been behind her, which lit up.
"It's these messages I just got," Ryouko said. "Clarisse is displaying it. She's trying to keep it all mysterious, for some reason."
Asami looked at her. The girl was the only one who knew Ryouko was carrying nonstandard equipment, but Ryouko wasn't sure she realized the implications of that.
"You're starting to talk like your TacComp is some sort of person," she pointed out. "Are the Version Twos really that different?"
"They're, uh, interesting," Ryouko hedged.
The wall in front of them began to scroll the text of the first message. The first thing Ryouko noticed was the unusual formatting: it looked formal and typeset, and even came with its own fancy border and font, contrasting with the simple text that constituted most messages. It even had a seal! This didn't mean much in terms of effort—machines could do it for you easily—but it did indicate how the sender wanted to be perceived. It was especially unusual, given that the sender surely knew that many people would choose to listen to the message instead, or would have it overlaid on their vision while doing something else. Neither situation was conducive to fancy formatting.
"The message came with instructions that the sender would prefer it be read on a physical interface," Clarisse said, voice emanating from the wall panel.
Ryouko and Asami both startled, Asami's elbow brushing against hers. The voice was, after all, Ryouko's.
"Ah, sorry," Clarisse said. "I thought you'd both want to hear it."
"It has your voice?" Asami asked, looking at Ryouko incredulously.
"I didn't have a choice," Ryouko said. "It was mandatory."
"That's incredibly creepy," Asami said.
"Yeah, that's what I thought too," Ryouko said, looking to her side. "But I got used to it. It's not that bad."
"If they're really issuing upgrades soon, it's going to be really weird," Asami said.
There was a moment of awkward silence as they thought about whether to continue the line of conversation.
Ryouko decided not to, focusing again on the message. It read:
Sender: Guillaume François
Firstly, allow me to congratulate you on your recent contract. I have heard only the highest of your abilities, and have no doubt that you will prove a credit to your family lines.
I hope you will pardon the forwardness of this missive, but as I am sure you are aware, with the recent news regarding your esteemed lineage, there will be no shortage of those who seek your company. In sending this, I am hoping to get my "foot in the door", so to speak, and I hope I am not being off‐putting.
I am not so tawdry as to suppose that familial considerations will be sufficient for something such as this, even if such an alliance would be of significant mutual benefit. Rather, I propose that we arrange a virtual meeting…
Ryouko stopped reading there, her face having shifted by stages into almost a caricature of astonishment, as she recognized the message for what it was: a relationship proposal.
"That's message one of two," Clarisse said. "The second one has the same purpose, though it is less eccentric."
"Why–why on Earth—" Ryouko stammered.
"Huh, so it's begun this early," Asami said, pursing her lips, looking not so much surprised as annoyed. "The warnings were correct."
Ryouko stopped, taking a breath to steady herself.
"You don't seem very surprised," she said, eyes narrowing. "Warnings?"
"Yeah," Asami said, looking at her. "Everyone here is aware of your background and mentorship. Some of them are jealous, though they mostly don't show it. Others have been trying to get your attention. People tell me I'm lucky to be your roommate. You–you haven't noticed, have you?"
The last sentence was directed at Ryouko's blank look of surprise.
"No," she said. "I haven't."
Asami looked down at her feet, and the knees that she had bunched up against her chest.
"I shouldn't be surprised," she said. "I know what that's like. I probably wouldn't have noticed either, if people weren't so aggressive about telling me. I wonder if their advice is really sound."
"Advice?" Ryouko asked.
Asami seemed to think for a moment.
"Well, you're going to be getting a lot more of these," Asami said, still looking down. "That's what they said. Apparently, they should have been beating at you and your parents' door your whole life, except you were such a secret for so long. Lots of competition, I guess. You interested at all?"
"Uh, no," Ryouko said. "Probably not. It's way too early, right?"
"Yeah, probably," Asami said.
The girl got off Ryouko's bed, heading back towards her own.
"That was exciting," she said. "But I think I'm going to sleep now."
"Okay," Ryouko said, staring at the way the other girl's shoulder blades protruded slightly.
It was too early, of course, but it bothered her that these things were starting to intrude on her life. She—
Well, she hadn't put any thought into it, really. What was it Asami had said earlier?
"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."
The voice rang out in her head, the memory played back by Clarisse without prompting.
Well, it hadn't happened yet, anyway, Ryouko thought. Speaking of Clarisse:
Why on Earth did you make me include Asami‐chan in this? Ryouko thought, finally remembering to ask the question. This would have been much better done privately.
I thought it'd be a good idea if she knew, Clarisse thought. Among other things, she might have had some useful insight, as proved to be the case.
Did you know about all that stuff she was talking about? Ryouko thought.
I suspected, Clarisse thought, though I didn't think she would spontaneously start talking to you about it. I was planning to push it in that direction. I would have eventually said something, if this opportunity hadn't arisen.
Humph, Ryouko thought, aggrieved. Do all you Version Twos hide information like this? It doesn't seem fair, given that you read my thoughts all the time.
We're programmed to try not to overwhelm you with too many things at once, Clarisse thought. We're programmed to promote emotional health, promote healthy relationships, all of that. It's what distinguishes us from the previous model.
Is there anything else you're trying not to 'overwhelm' me with? Ryouko thought sarcastically.
Well, for one thing, have you considered whether or not you're going to be in the Soul Guard?
No, she thought. I hadn't. Isn't that kind of thing done by assignment?
Yes, Clarisse thought. And, in the normal course of things, you probably would be, based on your unusual powers. However, your apprenticeship with Mami changes things. She needs to keep you out of Guard command structure, since she probably intends to place you somewhere in her command staff, and she is technically not a member of the Guard. Ordinarily, it'd be a loss of prestige, but in this case, everyone will understand why.
Hmm, Ryouko acknowledged.
I would have been surprised had you been placed in the Guard, but I was waiting until a better moment to tell you. Otherwise, it'd just be a random prediction on my part, and you hardly have a lot of time nowadays. Speaking of which, would it not be best to take a nap at this point?
Ryouko sighed. She was too tired to argue with the device at this moment in time. She really did need to sleep.
Fine, she thought. But this isn't the end of this.
"Hey, Ryouko‐chan," Asami said, after they woke up again, before they were obliged to get up for the next round of simulations.
"What is it?" Ryouko asked, not bothering to shift from her current position, face up in her bed. She had been thinking about her ranking scores in the most recent rounds of simulations. Very high.
"We're almost done, aren't we?" Asami said, voice airy. "Just one more day of this, and we go on our first practice run."
"Yeah," Ryouko said drily. "A week of garrison duty on a secondary world somewhere. Doesn't sound terribly exciting."
"I could use some boredom, after all these simulations," Asami said.
"Yeah, me too," Ryouko agreed. "But you know, personally I don't think it's all that close. We've got maybe a week's worth of simulation time left. Sure, it doesn't really seem that long after you're done with it, but Clarisse says that's a deliberate temporal perception illusion. When you're actually in the simulation itself, it really is a week. You should probably think of it that way."
There was a long pause. Ryouko thought the conversation over, but then Asami said, finally:
"During garrison duty, we're going to learn our initial assignments," she said. "What do you think are the chances that we end up stationed together?"
Ryouko turned and looked at the other bed, but the girl wasn't looking in her direction.
"I don't know," she said. "I have an idea of where I'm going, but I have no idea what they'd do with you. Honestly…"
She paused, trying to think it through.
"I think they might mark you out for the MC," Ryouko said. "With a power like gravity, it seems likely."
"Space combat?" Asami asked rhetorically. "I'd really rather not. I want to see planets. And would I really be ready for that?"
"They give you an extra week of training after your initial assignment if you're designated for the MC," Ryouko said. "That's what the archives say, after all."
"I—" Asami began.
Ryouko listened to herself breathe, in the brief silence.
"I don't have any assurance I'll get my dreams fulfilled," Asami said. "I know a lot of girls here are at least confident of that. I… I wished for my parents to stay together, to finally understand each other so that they wouldn't separate. I couldn't stand to see them so unhappy with each other, and, you know, I have my younger brother to think about."
From her position in the other bed, Ryouko couldn't quite read Asami's face, which was concealed by the contours of her blankets.
"It's kind of funny," Asami said. "I worded my wish carefully, so that it wouldn't change their personalities, so it wouldn't be some kind of mind‐control. Even so, I can't bring myself to tell them what my wish was. They don't remember fighting anymore. The memories are gone. Only my brother and I remember."
Again, there was silence, and Ryouko knew she was expected to say something in return.
"I wished to travel the stars," she said. "I wanted to go where no one else has, and I wanted to find my place in the universe. I don't think my wish was as selfless as yours."
"Hmm," the other girl vocalized, before sighing, tired.
"I feel greedy," Asami said. "I've had my wish, and now I want more. I don't regret what I wished for, but now I have other things I want."
"You can try for them anyway," Ryouko said. "It doesn't have to be from a wish."
"I know," Asami said. "Maybe I'll think of a way."
The conversation lulled, and this time it was Ryouko who said:
"We should sleep."
Appendix A: "Assessment"
Occupation: Magical Girl
Date of Contract: September 16, 2460
Rank: Second Lieutenant
Home planet: Earth
Status: Active, MG Basic Training
Mentors: Tomoe Mami, Field Marshal. Sakura Kyouko, Lieutenant General.
Pre‐contract academics were somewhat above‐average, without any remarkable contribution to any particular field. Pre‐contract online activities were sufficient to warrant Level One security monitoring, but this is considered unimportant.
In initial simulations Lieutenant Shizuki has shown an excellent grasp of combat tactics and strategy, with a clear understanding of most technical and organizational aspects of ground combat. Her performance in direct combat is innovative, making effective use of powers which are otherwise relatively ill‐suited for personal combat. Performance in tactical command roles is above average, though lacking in natural leadership skills. Performance in strategic command roles is likewise above average.
Despite an apparently comprehensive understanding of tactical doctrine, Shizuki has shown a disturbing tendency toward over‐aggression in attack‐and‐destroy situations, including a relative disregard for personal safety. Further, she has shown an excessive unwillingness to sacrifice assets when necessary, preferring to commit herself and others to unsafe rescue attempts, though this tendency is more pronounced in tactical rather than strategic contexts. While she shows an ability to recognize irretrievable situations, these behaviors degrade her overall command potential.
Commitment to either field command or strategic command promotion tracks, preferably as a staff officer with specialist/support obligations. Exposure to direct combat is not recommended. Full commitment to specialist track would be waste of some talents. Possible exception: special operations, where aggression and unwillingness to sacrifice may prove assets instead of liabilities.
— Post‐training assessment for Shizuki Ryouko, MG
Appendix B: "VR Simulation"
One of the most novel aspects of modern military is the heavy, nearly total use of virtual reality (VR) simulation for training purposes. Nearly every piece of traditional training equipment has been obviated by the use of simulation, and the vast majority of training is carried out in VR. Not only does this conserve resources, it also conserves time, due to the critical ability of VR to provide accelerated subjective time to its users. This time acceleration is pushed to its absolute limits by the modern military, with everything from weapons training to field maneuvers to classroom instruction carried out virtually, simply because it's faster.
In addition, VR simulation also allows for better types of training, permitting recruits to be placed in grandiose combat environments that could not possibly be replicated in a real world training environment. Perhaps most critically, death in a virtual simulation is meaningless, so recruits can be thrown right into the firestorm of simulated combat without concern for their lack of experience. Such training substantially reduces initial battlefield casualties. Indeed, in its quest for greater and greater realism, and better and better training methodologies, the military is unencumbered by the majority of civilian regulations, leaving it free to use technologies and methods that are explicitly and severely illegal outside of a training context, many borrowed from the underground gaming industry.
Only a few activities still require "hands‐on" instruction, most notably the development of magical girl powers, which are notoriously hard to simulate properly. Extensive cortical monitoring has, over time, allowed the replication of the unique sensory experience of power usage, but users still report sensations of "wrongness" during VR simulations.
Overall, accelerated time VR simulation has enabled the training of soldiers with unparalleled levels of initial combat effectiveness in record amounts of time, with the average infantryman passing through combat training in a mere three days, and magical girls varying from one to two weeks, excluding preliminary "test runs".
— Simulation Magazine, "Military Uses of Virtual Reality," article excerpt.