"Greetings from the war."
"I hope this message finds you well. I am unfortunately a bit too far from the nearest communication relays for reliable two‐way messaging, so I packaged this message in advance, to give you something to read."
"Anyway, my most recent mission was extremely difficult, on a completely different tier from the previous ones. I knew something was up when they added a clairvoyant and more than one stealth mage to my crew complement. Sure enough, I was soon briefed on a major scouting mission into alien space. Project Coeus, look it up."
"I'm glad, Nicholas, that you have enough clearance for me to talk about things like that. I can only imagine how it feels for poor Miyu. Her partner runs an asteroid mining facility, and has no clearances at all for military stuff. Can you imagine? This is why we ships usually get together with other ships."
"Rambling tangent aside, I would guess High Command is very interested in launching some kind of counterattack into alien space, or at least some kind of raid? They're taking a serious risk, putting so many stealth ships and mages deep into alien space just to take a look around. We've already taken some losses."
"I can hear your worry already. Do not fret too much. We stealth frigates learned a couple tricks from the alien show of stealth at Orpheus, and we ladies are rather proud of our performance across the front so far."
"Well, to be honest, I barely made it back the last time. I found myself caught in a particularly nasty stretch of space, with more patrol ships than I'd ever wish to see. My mages were nearly out of power when I snuck back across the line."
"We'll have some time to talk once I finally make it back to Human space proper. Then it's off to another one of these missions. I just hope to make it through this with my original body intact…"
— Personal message, sent by the Stealth Frigate HSS Rosalind Franklin
…but while the impact of the revolutionary Project Janus can hardly be overstated, it is not true that it has removed all constraints on interstellar travel, coordination, and management. Put simply, the mechanics of FTL travel create logistical constraints that would be recognizable even to the pre‐Unification Wars pioneers of the 2100s.
The key observation is that maintaining FTL travel is energetically expensive. Exorbitantly expensive, by pre‐Project Icarus standards, even after the numerous topological innovations made by Janus physicists. One of the most important coincidences of FTL travel, then, is the fact that certain forms of 'exotic' matter are both useful in space‐time manipulation and extremely energy dense, once they decay into more ordinary forms of matter. This enables slow‐decaying forms of exotic matter to be treated as a form of fuel, a single material that can be produced and loaded onto ships to power their journey to the stars.
However, the sheer energy expense of exotic matter production requires its synthesis under the most energy‐rich conditions, such that exist in only a few places in settled human space, in the solar‐orbiting exotic matter refineries of the Core Worlds, and in particular of Sol, harnessed from the swarms of sun‐facing satellites orbiting these stars. This production is so important to both military and civilian traffic that it is by far the single largest expense on the Governance energy budget.
Close inspection of interstellar fuel expenditure thus reveals a situation that could be easily explained to the earliest rocket engineers. To wit: The maximal practical FTL range of a ship is constrained by the amount of fuel it can carry when it leaves the nearest fuel source. The faster the travel intended, the less efficient the travel—and the necessary fuel‐to‐cargo mass ratio rises exponentially with the desired maximum velocity. Still, nothing prevents the building of larger vessels, which enjoy considerable savings in other aspects of space travel.
Viewed in this light, the logistics of FTL commerce and military traffic are completely intuitive—civilian travel is much slower, providing enormous fuel savings. Military craft, which must travel with lightning speed, carry and use much more fuel, and are frequently much larger, all the way up to battlecruiser class, but every sector has its own home fleets, and each system its own less FTL‐capable defense ships. Finally, to service the mobile fleet, Governance maintains fuel dumps throughout settled space, which are in turn serviced by enormous, heavily‐guarded fuel ships.
While recent years have seen the rollout of impressive amounts of solar capacity in otherwise distant systems in a bid to make fuel production more local, the fact remains that exotic matter synthesis is a highly centralized affair, the logistical weakpoint of Governance operations, and for that matter of Cephalopod operations, as all available evidence suggests that, aside from the much‐coveted wormhole technology, alien logistics are little different…
— Infopedia article, "Logistics and FTL Travel," mode: discursive, moderate detail, high density; excerpt.
It was with a sense of foreboding that Mami stepped back into the virtual conference room of Carthago station. She had savored a relaxing morning, aided by a Machina‐facilitated power nap. Before this trip, it had been too long since she had been able to take her early morning nap. Some habits died hard, and even without the technical need for sleep, it had just seemed wrong not to sleep at some point in the night, even if she spent most of it still active.
That was her peacetime habit anyway, and part of her was surprised she was still sticking to it on this vacation.
Still, no amount of stalling or hiding could put this off indefinitely. Indeed, she was still in the process of leaving New California on a specially appointed military frigate—they technically hadn't told her they needed her physically back right away, but she could read between the lines.
You're distracting yourself again, Machina thought.
Just let me have this, no one else is even here yet, she thought.
She felt a small spurt of worry, a bit of feeling her TacComp allowed to leak out. It reminded her of… well herself, really. Worried about one of the girls she was taking care of.
She shook her head, slightly, as she took her seat at the table—not at the head, which she was leaving for Feodorovich for this meeting. With the passage of time, she had gotten more used to Machina, more used to having someone looking out for her. It had made her realize just how lonely it was at the top, so to speak.
Still, this Tactical Computer project had clearly been a disaster, and she would have to get the ball rolling for research on a separation project.
Somehow. She was given to understand it might be difficult.
Feodorovich herself arrived next, unusually early, appearing directly into the chair. Mami nodded at her, and she nodded back. When one "arrived" was often just a matter of social timing, since every general could split their attention among a few tasks if they had to, and there was nothing terribly difficult about sitting in a chair and waiting. The only thing that was unacceptable was to be late to a plenary session without a very good reason.
The others began arriving shortly afterward, each entrance an expression of personal preference. Some political allies arrived together, and some chose to walk in the door, as Mami had.
When everyone had arrived, Feodorovich tapped the table for attention, the chatter taking a while to subside. The silence did not arrive instantly, as it had for Erwynmark or even for Mami before. Part of it was that Feodorovich was not the actual Chair, but part of it was also a signal to Mami herself. Her power and influence were waning thanks to her leave of absence, and the well‐justified questions about her fitness that it brought up.
"I'm not going to waste too much of everyone's time with pleasantries," Feodorovich said. "You all know meetings like this are rarely called, and almost never by an interim chair. Yet it's not an emergency meeting—I haven't roused anyone out of their beds."
A chuckle sounded around the table; it was nearly impossible to rouse anyone on the General Staff out of their beds, given that they barely ever slept. Still, the point was made.
"So it's not an emergency," she said, standing up. "But it is urgent, and important that we start working on the problem right away."
She made a show of clearing her throat, then called up the table's holographic display. Rather than the usual sector maps or fleet statistics, it displayed a short clip of what appeared to be Cephalopods working in a modern industrial facility. The video was fuzzy, not in the oddly‐colored, overly smooth way that typified noisy reconstructed images, but in the human way—details appeared and disappeared from focus, objects faded and returned again, and the whole thing seemed a little surreal.
Mami knew what it was right away, of course, even as the hologram switched to what looked like a distant view of an alien space station, full of docked ships, then to the more typical sector diagram they were all used to. At the moment it showed the Euphratic Sector, though zoomed out so that no detail was displayed, not yet.
"What you will see here is the latest intel on Cephalopod deployments against the recently‐reclaimed Euphratic Sector, the fruits of the experimental Coeus Project, which some of you will be reading about for the first time. I won't belabor that, as you should all now be receiving the needed files and can read it afterward at your leisure."
Feodorovich made a slight gesture, and the hologram zoomed in and past the sector, to the Cephalopod‐controlled region of space. A silence settled over the table as those seated took in the information, faces darkening in turn as they grasped the ramifications.
"The alien forces here are in much better shape than we had anticipated, as you can see," she said, in her high, almost rasping voice. "They're not ready for a new offensive yet, far from it, but they are vastly ahead of where we thought they'd be after the collapse of the previous offensive. This breaks the pattern of the previous two decades, as it indicates that they launched the previous offensive with a substantial reserve lined up."
She paused rhetorically, with the air of someone doing a practiced job of delivering bad news—a combination of detached professionalism and just enough body language to indicate that, yeah, she felt the bad news too.
"Our AI analysts believe there is a very good chance they will choose to hit us again in the same spot, and if they do, even a maximal effort won't get us anywhere near as well‐defended as we were last time. Not without committing crippling amounts of our mobile assets. And we all know how things went last time."
"In some sense it's not surprising that they would have reserves, is it not?" Sualem asked, taking advantage of the momentary pause. "We all saw that fleet they tried to ambush us with at Orpheus. All those ships must have gone somewhere."
"Well, with all due respect, I think we were hoping they had found their way inside a black hole," Anand said, tapping the armrest of her chair with her fingers.
That triggered a nervous laugh around the table.
"There's no reason to believe these new forces have anything to do with those ships," Feodorovich said. "It is still an open question just what they are doing with that fleet."
"From a bigger picture point of view it's not all that surprising they have a fleet they're just not doing anything with," Mami commented, shaking her head unhappily. "We know they should have all kinds of resources that they just never seem to use."
"I would say they're using it now," Sualem said. "Maybe. We all know that this war is very confusing. But you were saying?"
He gestured at Feodorovich, whom he had seemingly interrupted earlier.
"Actually I was going to talk on the same points," she said. "But ultimately, we can save the high‐minded discussion on the nature of the war for later. I propose that, ultimately, given our current situation, we must ask Governance for more resources for the war effort. This recommendation comes endorsed by MAISL—the long‐term is the long‐term, but first we have to get there."
That caused a stir among the assembled Marshals and Admirals, many of whom made a visible show of discomfort. To them, making a request like that was a concession of failure, of not achieving their goals as an organization.
This wasn't like the old wars of human history, where there was a visible enemy to be destroyed, over which victory would mean everything. They still didn't even know where the alien core worlds were.
So the General Staff prided itself on doing the absolute most with the resources they were given, stalling the war as long as possible while Governance grew larger and larger. It was the only way.
"If… we have no choice, we have no choice," Sualem said, after glancing over at Admiral Miller. "There's not much to be said about it. There's no reason to contest the logistical projections of MAISL."
Mami released the breath she hadn't known she was holding. The Sualem‐Miller faction had made no secret that they were unappreciative of her position in the General Staff, but since taking the chair she had noticed what Erwynmark had—they only played politics on the small stuff, never the big stuff. It earned them a smidgen of respect from her.
Just a smidgen, though.
"I would say, though," Sualem began, leaning forward and clasping his hands together.
He looked around the room dramatically to make sure he had their attention.
"I would say that I hope we're not just going to sit back and let things play out so simply. The projections are what they are, but we have to look for something else we can do, some other angle to all this. It's what Erwynmark would have done."
Ah, there was the Sualem she knew, unable to resist a dig at the current leadership. Still, he had a point, even if it was an obvious one.
"I'm sure no one is saying that we should only do the obvious things," Mami said, leaning forward. "Of course we will explore all the possible options, and we welcome any proposals of merit on the topic, even the outré ones."
"Yes," Feodorovich said, agreeing. "We have already begun developing a number of potential operations, mostly focused on delaying the Cephalopod build‐up inside their region of control. Unfortunately, as you can see, it is not simply a matter of repeating the Saharan Raid, not without turning it into our own major offensive, which is not something I think we are equipped for."
She paused, looking out over the table to see if anyone wanted to say anything.
"I would like now to present a few of those proposals for general discussion."
The hologram over the table changed form, displaying a set of symbols overlaid on the map that Mami and the rest of the Staff interpreted readily: bomber‐class craft traveling from bases in the Euphratic Front to attack points inside Ceph space.
"One of the most straightforward proposals is to begin deploying the experimental long‐range bomber fleet," Feodorovich said. "They performed well in the battle around Orpheus, and it is possible that we may finally be able to begin attempting the kind of long‐range harassment the aliens have always done to us, if we are able to achieve penetration with a few test sorties."
"I thought those bombers weren't in mass production yet," Anand said, shaking her head. "The last report I read said that the models used at Orpheus are still too resource‐intensive to use profitably. And I'm not sure it's that clear what we'd achieve with attacks of this sort. We have to inflict more damage than we receive, which is a testy proposition even when the Cephalopods attack us at long‐range. MilAdvise doesn't think the odds of that are that much better than a coin flip. Maybe 58%."
Some murmurs sounded around the table.
"The real risk would be tipping our hand, demonstrating to the aliens that we are working on this kind of technology," Fleet Admiral Chang said, making a gesture with one hand. "But we made that decision already, when we deployed them at Orpheus. Beyond that, there is no reason to fear making the attempt. This is what we built them for. If they're ready, they're ready. If not…"
He paused for a moment, looking around the table.
"Well, we're asking for more resources anyway, aren't we?"
"If nothing else it will be a good field test," General Alexander said, tapping a finger on the table. "Simulations are one thing, but we'll never know how they really perform until we actually see them in their intended role. Two birds, one stone. Always efficient."
"As long as we don't risk too much," General de Chatillon added, glancing at Anand, who was still shaking her head. "The last thing we need is to have them unavailable when needed elsewhere. Or have them start piling anti‐bomber defenses into the sector."
"I think some manner of caution is warranted," Mami agreed. "But I think we can count them stacking anti‐bomber defenses as a success, not a failure. It would still be resources drawn from elsewhere."
She looked around the table, then glanced at Feodorovich, who nodded in turn.
"Very well, not many objections," she said. "Let's move on."
The hologram hovering over the table shifted again, this time displaying a pattern of target facilities near the border with human space.
"Another possibility we have investigated is drastically stepping up the pace of our special operations in alien space, both conventional and otherwise. While it seems like a natural option, the MilAdvise simulations have not been terribly positive. We all know how irreplaceable these kinds of magical specialists are, and we don't really have the capability to hit targets beyond a certain depth—and the aliens know this, meaning they keep the really important ones further back. Blowing up border defenses might make life easier for the bombers, but is unlikely to have any serious strategic effect beyond making them nervous."
"I almost prefer them not nervous," Sualem said, shaking his head disapprovingly. "Most of our best successes have been when they got too cocky. I think I have to agree that this might not be the best of ideas."
Glances were traded around the table, and though no one else spoke up, it was obvious that the consensus agreed with the given assessment.
"Well, let's think outside the box a little," Mami said, gesturing at the holographic display. "What target could we hit that would have a real impact? We might not have the range for it now, but we might be able to come up with something if we know what we're trying to do. Even for a one‐shot operation."
"Well, a wormhole stabilizer is the obvious candidate," Feodorovich said. "Except that, unfortunately, they seem to have anticipated that particular trick after the Saharan Raid. There are several wormhole stabilizers in the area, all buried very deep in their territory, and it'd be quite a hat trick to hit them all. We had enough trouble with just the one at Orpheus."
"They seem to have realized that while we may be quite good at incredible one‐time feats, managing an incredible feat four or five times in a row is a lot more difficult," Sualem said sardonically, gesturing at the sector map laid out before them. "And given what we've seen so far, it seems wormhole stabilizers just aren't as expensive as all that. Certainly not more expensive than the average fleet. That they didn't have any redundancy earlier in the war was… simply another expression of alien arrogance."
Mami allowed some skepticism to show on her face, even if she privately thought Sualem's explanation more likely than not. The man had a taste for stating his guesses with a lot more certainty than she personally liked.
"We face an interesting conundrum," Chang commented, clasping his hands on the table. "Like all things in this war, this alien build‐up is massive, so massive that it is difficult to imagine we can ever slow it with pinpricks. But, given how difficult it is to score knockout blows, we must ask ourselves whether it is possible, and if so, how many pinpricks do we need? Which approach is better? Our problem is that even a Cephalopod AI with full access to their logistics databanks might struggle to answer that question, so what hope do we have?"
The table was silent for about ten seconds, as they interpreted what Chang had said and thought about the question.
"I would say that with no other information, it would still be better to go for knockout blows," Anand said. "After all, we're good at incredible one‐time feats, as Sualem mentioned. That is the specific advantage MagOps grants us. If we allow ourselves to be drawn into a long grind of mission after mission, then our performance will trend towards the average, an average the aliens will be able to estimate. The last thing we want is predictable outcomes, because they can almost certainly calculate those better than we can."
"While I am inclined to agree," Chang said, "that still leaves us the question of what big knockout punch we can land. Are there any ideas?"
"We need to hit something that they can't build multiple of," Mami mused, tapping her fingers on the table. "Something that would simply be way too expensive to replicate, and something they have to keep close to the border. Something fixed."
"Everything we know of matching that description is prohibitively well‐guarded," Chang said, shaking his head, not in disapproval but dissatisfaction. "For example, the exotic matter fuel center for the region would be a perfect target, if they didn't keep a massive fleet around it constantly, and if it wasn't manned by what looks like a huge garrison. I mean, it only makes sense."
The table murmured. Managing to strike the sector‐wide fuel center was analogous to managing to strike one of Humanity's core worlds—more than analogous, since the Core Worlds, Earth in particular, did house Governance's own fuel centers. It would be a logistical disaster if it happened even once.
It was also a pipe dream, even if the General Staff had spent more time than they liked to imagine fantasizing about it.
"Perhaps if there were something they didn't think we knew about, similar to the wormhole generator at Orpheus," Anand said, tilting her head slightly. "After all, it must be enormously expensive to guard everything important as if we could strike it at any time, especially if we haven't actually shown the ability to do so yet. It would be a lot cheaper to just leave something unusual, something we don't know about, as unostentatious as possible. After all, why would we attack something we don't even know the purpose of?"
"How would we even go about finding something like that?" Chang asked.
"There are a lot of new unknown alien facilities in this map," Mami said, leaning forward to take control of the hologram herself. "Over a hundred, in fact. We might want to start taking a look through them, if we can. Continue the surveillance program, turn our telescopes towards these systems, whatever we can. Who knows?"
"I'm a bit skeptical that the aliens really have some important critical facility that we don't know about," Sualem said, steepling his fingers, and watching Mami carefully. "But I have to agree that it probably doesn't hurt to try. We have plenty of telescopes, and worst case we learn a bit more about the aliens. I'd just hate to lose more of our surveillance assets."
"Me too," Mami said, making a show of looking through the list of unidentified alien facilities.
It really didn't look all that promising, even sorting for the ones the AIs had marked as particularly likely to be important. An unusually large wormhole generator facility, a strange deep‐space depot, a ground installation on a volcanic planet engaged in high‐intensity mineral processing, some tantalizing glimpses of a facility seemingly orbiting a known pulsar—since why would the squid do their science there? There were plenty of other pulsars.
But nothing here struck her as likely to cripple the alien war effort, even if it could be deleted with a snap of her fingers.
"But we have to try," she said. "We have to try everything, as long as it doesn't cost too much."
Part of her knew that this decision was certainly consigning someone somewhere to their death, but that was the kind of thought to be pushed into a corner and thought about later.
Feodorovich looked around the table for any dissent.
"Alright, we may as well," she said. "That does it for the ideas we've already come up with. Let's adjourn for the next 24 hours and then come back with fresh ideas. Tomoe Mami will return as Chair for that session."
Technically, Feodorovich hadn't discussed that with her yet, but it was obvious: it would have weakened her authority even further for her to continue to let Feodorovich or Anand run these meetings when she was obviously back, and Mami certainly wasn't the type of person who would want to save herself the work.
The members of the General Staff immediately began fading out of the room, returning to their duties or, if they felt they had something to say to each other, retiring to private discussion rooms. Those who wanted to talk to the Chair stayed, and in this case that meant Anand and Mami.
"I wasn't sure if I offended you by not telling you anything beforehand," Feodorovich said, turning towards her. "You did a good job of not looking too surprised."
"I knew it couldn't be anything good," Mami said. "I would have asked if I really wanted to know. I just thought, you know, I could stand to have another day to myself."
Feodorovich's lips turned upward, just a little.
"Being here wears on you after a while, doesn't it?" she said. "Just problem after problem, many of them unsolvable, except you're expected to solve them anyway. Day in, day out, never one enemy to shoot or one person to talk to and fix it. Only work and more work. I thought it would get better as I got older, but it really hasn't. I can't imagine what it's like for you."
Mami looked down at the table, then up at Feodorovich.
"It's what we signed up for," she said. "It's a bit much to complain about what we go through, compared to what the average foot soldier goes through. It seems silly, to do the same thing for month after month and year after year, and have it all suddenly get to you, but it happens anyway. I needed the break; I should take more in the future, as circumstances permit."
These were words she never would have dared say to most people on the General Staff, but these were some of her closest political allies. If they couldn't hear it, who could? And unlike many in the MSY, they shared her experiences here.
The other two looked surprised to hear her say this, but nodded a moment later.
"Just so," Feodorovich said.
"I just wanted to check in on you," Anand said. "Since, you know, you've been gone for a while. I don't have to tell you some of the marshals here aren't sold on you. Your performance on this matter will weigh on their opinions."
Mami smiled slightly.
No pressure, she thought.
"Also, before you get right to work, I'm told there's some new results from Adept Blue you might want to have a look at. When you get the chance. I think it might be very intriguing."
"Noted," Mami acknowledged, smiling.
Back to work, then, Machina thought, with what felt like a sigh. A shame, I was enjoying our vacation.
Yes, back to work, Mami thought, holding her smile. Machina had sounded almost childish for a moment there, which only seemed appropriate given how young she really was.
It made Mami feel better, somehow.
"I can't believe this kind of thing is legal," Asami said, stretching out her arm to take a careful look.
"Strictly speaking, it's not," Azrael said, shrugging her tiny shoulders vaguely. "I certainly haven't gotten this simulation to run on any other Governance server. At least not the bodymod parts. I worked out an arrangement with Vlad."
Asami seemed to think about that a moment, even as Ryouko and Patricia took turns flicking their nictating membranes over their eyes, marveling at the novelty of it. It seemed to cast the world behind a pale yellow lens.
At the moment, that world looked deceptively prosaic, nothing more than the four of them standing about a mostly normal‐looking living area. It was a bit cramped—that was no different from Earth—and the ceilings were lower, though that was less noticeable with their now‐reduced size.
Really, the only differences were the odd chairs, which all had grooves for comfortable placement of their spinal thorns and tail buds, and the windows, which looked over a view which, well, Ryouko hadn't yet dared look at, lest she be unable to stop looking.
"Vlad is awfully accommodating," Asami said.
"Many AIs are," Azrael said. "Especially since they don't see body modification as all that unusual, at least not as much as humans do. It was Director Valentin's idea, though. I guess I shouldn't be surprised she was read into the secret at some point. She's awfully nice."
"Awfully nice" was… not how Ryouko would have chosen to describe Joanne Valentin, but there was no point dispelling someone else's positive impression.
Patricia was a new member of this particular secret club, having been read into the secret when Azrael arrived at the station. Now, she was getting a far more visceral introduction than either of them had gotten.
"This is astonishing," she said, rippling the back of her shirt with her newfound spinal thorns. "I don't know of any simulation capable of taking bodymods this far. It feels so natural. In most sims, you have to piggyback the motor control onto some other muscles, but this is much cleaner. It still takes a bit of focus… how did you manage this?"
Azrael's spinal thorns shuffled slightly from side‐to‐side, a gesture Ryouko now immediately recognized as nervous, though autonomically suppressed whenever the wings were attached.
"I wish I could say this was my work, but I'm neither a genius simulation developer nor neuroscientist," Azrael said. "I built some of this world myself, based on bits and pieces I remember, but most of it, including the bodymods, was loaded onto our implants and stayed with me when I left the colony. Old software, stuff my, uh, ancestors had built to train themselves for their future bodies, before anyone was born with it. From what I know, there's software modules that act like small extensions of the brain, in place of motor circuits you don't actually have. It's in the manual."
"Research into this kind of thing is basically outlawed," Patricia said, looking up at the wings mounted on wall racks. "Not quite, but it doesn't get any resources, and people are always encouraged to work on something else. So the rumors say."
"I know," Azrael said.
"Can we, uh…" Asami began, gesturing meekly at the wings herself. "I want to test it out."
"Of course," Azrael said. "That's the whole point of me inviting you to do this. Since it's your first time, I'll…"
Her voice trailed off, and she looked away for a moment, almost as if she had thought of something.
"I'll have to help you put them on," she finished a moment later.
She reached up at the wall rack, and one the wings helpfully slid forward to allow her to grab it. In that period of time, Ryouko and Asami figured out what was bothering her.
"Oh, you don't have to," Asami said hurriedly. "I'm sure we can just have the simulation move them to our backs."
"That seems rather boring," Patricia said, missing the point entirely. "If you don't mind, I'd be happy to have them installed manually. The procedure must be—"
She made a face as she received the telepathic equivalent of shouting.
"Never mind," she amended a few seconds later, looking away awkwardly. "I'm sure it's not that exciting. We're all ready to get going with the flights, right?"
Azrael stood still for a moment, still holding a single white wing in both hands.
"Yeah, let's skip that," she said, placing it back on the wall rack. "It'll save time anyway."
She smiled a little, facing the wall.
"I can't say I wouldn't have enjoyed it, but it would have been… kind of creepy. It was normally something only parents did with their children. I'll have the simulation load the wings in directly, then."
Ryouko felt a momentary tingle on her back, then a sudden weight. Not a burden, like a backpack, but something paradoxically relaxing. Her shoulders felt lighter, her balance surer, even her backside more solid, somehow, and she realized that this was how it was supposed to be.
Then the sensory link‐ups came online, and she became conscious of the wings and tail, and she just didn't think. Her internal narrative was silent, because she had no time to focus on it.
"I wouldn't know how to describe it," Patricia said, shaking her head and folding her wings in front of her so she could stroke them with one hand. "Standard isn't meant to describe gaining extra limbs. The closest analogy I can think of is when they first install the ocular implants, and you can see all those new colors. We have names for some of those colors, but no names for this."
"That's not entirely true," Azrael said, turning towards them. "AIs have always had a term, which my colony borrowed. They call it 'Cognitive Expansion', or 'Horizon Expansion', since it feels like your mind is expanding. It's used for adding new sensory modalities, modules, or processing power."
Her expression was unreadable. Ryouko thought she looked amused, but it was overlaid with something else. Happiness?
"Alright, so I don't have time to really take you through all the paces," Azrael continued. "Usually, our children spent a lot of time practicing in special training areas before flying out in the open, but that takes a while, and it's not like I'm actually trying to train you to fly. Even with natural instincts, it still takes a while to pick it all up, but I can have the simulation deal with that. Just follow me off the edge when we step outside."
It actually sounds kind of terrifying when she puts it that way, Asami thought.
Azrael strode towards the doorway, folding her wings behind her to slip through the opening.
There was enough space outside for the four of them to stand comfortably, and one by one they stepped outside, slowed, and stopped near the edge, looking over the former colony in front of them.
It was much larger and denser than Ryouko remembered depicted on the hologram in Azrael's room. Spires seemed to fill the sky around them, mingling with the clouds—you couldn't even see the tops of most of them, hidden in the murky distance, obscured by the dense atmosphere. The architecture was exotic, resembling nothing Ryouko had ever seen, save perhaps the mesas on San Giuseppe.
And between them moved swarms of people.
Most moved in orderly procession, traversing the sky from spire to spire, or top to bottom, in lazy soaring and controlled dives that seemed almost choreographed, obeying the markings and signals of billowing, stationary buoys. Others, farther from the spires, flew more freely, darting back and forth on obvious pleasure excursions. The coloration of wings and tails showed a raucous diversity, some tails even decorated with light ornaments, and one could spot the occasional pair of fliers engaged in tenuous, spiraling dances.
"I can never make up my mind whether to have the people here when I visit," Azrael said. "On the one hand, having them here reminds me, too much, of home. On the other hand, having it all empty is just… unpleasant."
There was almost too much to look at, even beyond the people and the colorful wings. Dirigibles and aircraft of every size shared the air lanes with the fliers, drones weaving nimbly back and forth, large transport craft floating in from somewhere far in the distance.
"Who designed the spires?" Asami asked, looking out at the floating structures. They seemed to fluctuate between giant mesa, oversized insect nest, and renaissance tower before their very eyes, the shifting clouds concealing and revealing features in real time.
"The best answer is the scientists who originally designed the colony," Azrael said. "They wanted to make an aerial structure that we could live in, something organic, with nothing in common with previous human architectural traditions. They didn't entirely get their way, though, since not everyone was onboard with cutting ties like that. So, as a compromise, some crenellations were installed, so they would kind of resemble towers in the mist? It was a mess and our school material wasn't really that detailed."
"It's really pretty though, in its own way," Patricia said.
"That it is," Azrael said, stretching her wings out as she gazed at said towers, closing her nictating membranes against the sun, which was breaking its way over the towers at that very moment. The timing was obviously unnatural, driven by the simulation, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.
"If you feel scared, remember that this is only a simulation," she said, turning to face them, wings spread. "And remember that the simulation will not let you fail. Follow me."
Then she pushed herself off the edge, tipping backwards headfirst and allowing herself to fall, a winged silhouette against the sun.
"Well, I hope she doesn't mind that I took a video of that," Asami said. "She obviously enjoyed it."
Azrael soared back in front of them, dozens of meters away, watching as they peered skeptically over the edge.
Ryouko found herself staring down into what seemed like a measureless void, cascading clouds forming a solid wall that dipped down into infinity. It was daunting, even as Clarisse whispered to her that the simulation was dampening her fear response.
Before she was finished looking, though, Asami had vaulted off the edge, taking a running jump without even looking down, which was probably the right thing to do. Ryouko remembered, then, that Asami had fought in the depths of space, and limitless voids were merely a fact of life.
She watched Asami dive downwards, wings catching on air and bringing her slowly, inexorably to a stall, before a few powerful flaps sent her climbing back up.
Ryouko swallowed sharply, took a breath, and jumped, defying her muted, human instincts. She had been in freefall plenty of times before, after all, relying on her teleportation to keep her from hitting the ground. Here it provided solace.
Her nictating membranes closed instinctively, shielding her eyes from the onrush of air. The faint yellow pallor it placed on the world dropped immediately out of perception, as clouds rushed past her with dizzying speed.
She felt her wings stretching out, the air itself seeming to catch her like… a pillow, perhaps. Analogies failed her.
This is amazing, Patricia thought, appearing at Ryouko's side as they flew forward. She was stating the obvious, but something had to be said, and it obviously wasn't a good idea to yell at each other with the air roaring in their ears.
They pulled to a stop near Azrael and Asami, who were doing large, sweeping circles in the air—more precisely, they tried to stop, but Ryouko was finding that the slower she tried to move, the harder she had to beat her wings, and the wind was ever‐insistent, pulling her forward in a way that seemed to suggest, not so gently, where she wanted to go.
This is nice, isn't it? Azrael thought, her tone almost embarrassed. There's nothing quite like it. You're better off following the wind, by the way—most of it is artificial, it's how we maintained the skylanes. Maybe someday I'll take you offlane, but this is alright for now.
She didn't wait for a response, not letting them get a word in edgewise. Instead, she turned and dove into an air current, and Asami followed a moment later, almost frantically.
The world turned again into a kaleidoscope of sky and cloud, wind and vapor swirling all around as Ryouko tried to follow Azrael's turn, using a dive to gain speed and catch the wind. She could barely keep Asami's tail feathers in view, but it wasn't disorienting, far from it. Her wings and proprioception helped her far more than her eyes, so that even in the most difficult turns she always knew which way was up.
She realized quickly that they were getting closer to the towers they had seen before, and began to grasp the organization of the city. Where they had been was sparse, closer to the outskirts. Where they were going was denser. Even here, the idea of a city was the same.
Something iridescent passed by her, another flier, and then Azrael pulled them into a slight bank, Ryouko's wings tugging slightly at her shoulders as she followed. Before she knew it, they were surrounded by other fliers, in a raucous collection of color, and in a miracle of synchronized flying they appeared to hover almost in place, the whole group following what she realized was a lead drone craft, there to slice the air and let them fly more smoothly in its wake.
It wasn't difficult—no harder than walking—in the thick, comforting air, and she remembered that Azrael needed powered assistance in the thinner atmospheres of most colonized worlds. It had to feel terrible.
She thought about asking where they were going, but decided against it. This was Azrael's show, and it was better to see where she was taking them than to ask questions. They were clearly going to be there soon.
Finally she felt the wind calm, and she saw Azrael slow, so she let her own momentum stall, curving her wings so that they would push her back, just a little. It felt so natural she hardly thought about it, and it was similarly easy to allow herself to fall, gently, using her tail to maneuver herself down a static column of air to their landing pad, which jutted out from one of the smaller towers.
"The designers of this colony were geniuses," Patricia said, stepping towards Azrael with breathless enthusiasm. "Geniuses. When I think about the things they could have done on Earth—"
"What Governance didn't let them do on Earth, you mean," Azrael said, raising one hand. "They didn't even ask for anything like this. Just some basic augments. Just some science."
She stopped, reading the look on Patricia's face and realizing she had gotten carried away.
"I'm sorry. That has nothing to do with you," she said. "It's a touchy topic for me."
She turned away from the group, gazing up at the spire above them, and the others followed her gaze. From here, they could see shops, residences, and even perhaps a museum, bright signs etched or stenciled onto the side of landing pads. To Ryouko it was even oddly familiar—there wasn't terribly much difference in principle between this spire and one of Mitakihara's tallest skyscrapers, themselves decorated with entranceways on numerous floors.
But where were they?
"Come on," Azrael said, startling them from their reveries. "I have a surprise for you."
She gestured with one hand, tucking her wings behind her back, and strode forward into the opening in front of them, which resembled a cave mouth, if caves had glass sliding doors.
It took Ryouko only a moment to recognize that they had stepped into the entrance to some kind of commercial area, pleading holographic advertisements on the walls still tacky to an Earther.
Ryouko's nictating membranes slid open a moment later, and she blinked, feeling the cool air on her eyes.
"The simulation that came loaded with my implants didn't have any of this," Azrael said, raising her arms up as she stepped through another doorway. "The walls and the caverns, yes, but not the decorations, or what was on sale, or any of the fine details. The designers spent most of their effort on the biology simulation and the wings, quite understandably. They didn't have any idea what the culture would be like, or what we would sell. I think they were content to let us find out for ourselves. On the other hand, I just have to use my memories."
The others looked around in silence as they followed her into the next chamber, or rather next cavern, a vast open area with a ceiling that stretched upward nearly to a vanishing point, the walls a brownish‐tan suggestive of rock, lit by invisible lights.
Shops and residences lined those walls, or were mounted on tenuous‐looking platforms in the middle, stacked upon one another like impossibly tall towers of toy blocks. Almost all of them opened directly to the air, no allowance made whatsoever to the possibility that someone might try to walk up to one.
And all of it, every terrace and platform and shop, was empty. Here, at least, Azrael had chosen not to meet anyone.
"Now it's my monument to my people," Azrael said, turning towards them. "Besides my therapists, you're the only people to have ever seen this."
"They don't usually encourage this kind of time spent building a simulation, if you don't mind my saying so," Patricia said, gaze upward.
"I never had any intention of losing myself here, if that's what you're getting at," Azrael said. "It was tempting, but I had a friend who helped support me, just a little. It made a big difference."
"Yeah," Patricia agreed, after a small pause.
"But we're not just here to stare," Azrael said. "Come on, follow me."
Azrael turned and made a hand gesture, and the three of them started to follow—then froze in surprise when Azrael crouched and jumped inhumanly high, launching herself into the air with long, powerful wing‐beats.
I was expecting her to just walk, Ryouko thought to Clarisse. This is going to take some getting used to.
I wonder if she meant Homura, Clarisse thought, with the air of a passing thought.
The friend who supported Azrael, Clarisse thought. I don't know who else it could be.
Maybe, Ryouko thought, propelling herself into the air in the same manner as Azrael had. She, too, pushed herself into the air with more speed than should have been humanly possible. It could have been merely her magical girl strength, but she had the sense there was more to it than that.
They flew in silence for a while, as Ryouko thought to herself about whether a colony like this might install catapults to launch people into the air more conveniently, and when she landed on their destination, she realized she hadn't paid attention to the flying at all.
Azrael stood grinning next to a florally‐decorated sign, labeled "Selene's Premium Wing and Tail Decorations". This was followed by a depiction of a heart and winged cupid.
"I'm not sure I like where this is going," Patricia said, peering at the sign.
"I added this place just for you all," she said. "I hadn't bothered, previously. Too many memories."
She turned and looked at the colorful feathers that festooned the doorway.
"We had a bit of a tradition back in the colony, where courting couples would buy ornaments to decorate themselves with, then go on these elaborate flights to declare their love. It was a total community thing, and people would turn out to watch it. Being able to fly like that was proof you were an adult, and ready for the other stuff. That was the idea."
She stroked one of the feathers.
"When I was young, when this colony still existed, there was a boy I had a crush on, who had been my friend since I was young. I drove myself crazy trying to decide how to tell him, and I ended up coming here to buy myself a bunch of 'color', as we used to call it. I was so happy, and even my sister loved it."
She shook her head.
"But you can guess this didn't end well. It turned out he was already taken, and before I could get over it, we had the disaster. I'm not even sure what happened to him, but I know he wasn't one of the few rescued by Governance."
"I'm sorry," Asami said, uncertainly, because it wasn't obvious what the right sentiment was.
"Yeah," Azrael acknowledged, wings drooping. "One of the things that really ate me later was, when I made my wish, why didn't I just wish the colony back? I like to think I just didn't think of it, since everything was so crazy, but sometimes I wonder."
"You can't beat yourself up about that," Patricia said. "It's not possible to optimize wishes."
"I know," Azrael said. "Or at least I know now. But you can see why I wasn't in any rush to relive my memories of this place just to complete this simulation."
"But!" she said, turning dramatically to make her point. "I'm not just here to reminisce dramatically. I'm here to try to put some demons to rest. How would the two of you like to try buying some ornaments?"
It took Ryouko a few seconds to realize who Azrael meant.
"Really?" she asked, unsure what else to say. "I'm not sure I'm uh, ready for that. We only just got here."
"That sounds romantic," Asami said, as Ryouko knew she would. Asami even gave her a sly look on the side.
"No, no flying today," Azrael said, waving her hands. "Even with the simulation to assist, I wouldn't want to do it today. Just the ornaments, though. It'll be fun!"
"Alright, then," Ryouko said, smiling vaguely, even as Asami looked disappointed. Ornaments she could deal with.
They followed Azrael into the shop, Ryouko pausing to take a look at the oddly‐shaped bells that clanked when they pushed open the door. She wasn't sure if it was intended to be nostalgically old‐fashioned, or if this particular colony just didn't have as much tech to spare on little things.
"Welcome," the shopkeeper said, stepping around the counter to greet them. It seemed Azrael had loaded at least one personality into the simulation.
"Uh, hello," Ryouko said politely, as Azrael walked over and did some kind of wing gesture, presumably of greeting. The shopkeeper wasn't wearing her wings, keeping her back concealed under a stylish‐looking blouse. That was probably wise, given that there wouldn't have been space to move or even stand behind the counter with wings on.
With that in mind, she looked at Azrael, who nodded, her wings unclasping themselves and tilting forward so she could grab them and hang them on convenient hooks set into the wall. Ryouko couldn't help but notice that her clothing wrapped itself around the connection point even as this happened, concealing any kind of direct view.
Ryouko frowned, focusing her thoughts on her own wings which, like so many other thought‐controlled mechanisms, responded immediately, sending an oddly unpleasant sensation through her, accompanied by a slight nausea.
Until then, she hadn't realized just how used she had gotten to the effective extra limbs on her back. Without them, the world felt disorienting, and smaller.
Interesting to think how it's not even human to have wings, Clarisse thought. And yet it felt so normal. You didn't go around thinking to yourself how alien you felt.
Ryouko nodded slightly in agreement.
"It's always like that, but you get used to it," Azrael said, watching Asami and Patricia grimace as Ryouko had. "It's not a physiological thing—it's just fundamentally not pleasant to lose functionality. The AIs will tell you all about it, if you ask. The bigger shops have space for you to keep your wings on, but that costs more rent. More humble shops have to be tight."
The shopkeeper should have questioned their odd inexperience, but ignored it, instead gesturing at her selection.
"I might not have the fanciest shop or the most wing‐space, but I do have the finest selection," she said. "All handcrafted, perfect for weddings, ceremonies, parties, and, of course, the dance."
She smiled knowingly, her eyes resting on Ryouko and Asami in particular as she studied the group.
"But don't worry, there's plenty of space in the back for you to try things on, with wings attached. That's a necessity."
Ryouko smiled nervously, even though the vendor hadn't spoken directly to her. It felt odd, being seen as merely one half of a romantic pairing.
Asami walked over to a display case, boldly grabbing what looked like an assortment of bone hooks hung on a large metal loop.
"This seems interesting," Asami said, as Ryouko leaned over to take a look.
They felt the material. It seemed like bone, but the texture felt just a little off. And had Azrael's homeworld even had native life?
"I guess they probably did have some kind of ecosystem," Asami said, "or there wouldn't have been any oxygen to breathe, most likely. It's hard to imagine what would have evolved on a planet like this, though. I thought the surface was uninhabitable."
Ryouko made a noise of agreement, not noticing that they had followed each other's thoughts.
"I'm sure the ecosystem would be fascinating for you," Azrael said, appearing next to them. "Rather than talk about it, I think I'd rather just show you. Later, though."
Ryouko nodded, though she had honestly been looking forward to Asami's inevitable excitement for the topic of alien life. The conversations got a bit long, but there was just something about seeing her enjoy herself so much.
"I'm not even sure how to picture myself wearing any of this stuff," Asami said, trying to tilt her head to look behind her. "I'm not used to having a tail."
"We can go in the back later," Azrael said. "I'm sure they'll have a cosmetic mirror."
Ryouko tuned them out, holding up a small… ring, examining it for a long moment. It was too large to be intended for a finger, but that wasn't really what she was interested in. Something about it looked oddly familiar, as if she had seen it before.
Shaking her head, she queried her electronic memories.
It's a coincidence, I'm sure, Clarisse thought. I didn't think it worth pointing out. A helix isn't exactly an unheard‐of motif, though I don't know exactly why Simona gave you one of those. Reanalyzing your interactions with her hasn't yielded much that's new…
Maybe meaningful somehow, Ryouko thought.
She hadn't worn the ring Simona had given her for long, partially because it was awkward in combat and partially because it just seemed a little garish. Instead, she had put it in her box of keepsakes, along with a few other gifts she had gotten. Unlike some of the other pieces of jewelry she had, it didn't get her any special matriarchy benefits, so she hadn't really kept it in mind.
"Oh yeah, that one is meant to be hooked into a feather on certain wing models," Azrael said, guessing at her question. "The, uh, DNA design was always popular, given our origins."
"Oh that's a weird one," Asami said, taking it to look at. "It's like the ring you were wearing back at the starport, when we first left Earth. I've always wondered about that."
She gave Ryouko the kind of look that meant she really did want an answer to the implied question.
"It was a gift from Simona, the, uh, girl who arrived earlier. My friends were giving me gifts for my departure."
"Her?" Asami asked, clearly not pleased.
"What's her deal anyway?" Azrael asked. "They never really explained it to me. She was related to the wormhole stuff somehow, apparently? But she's also your school friend."
Ryouko looked away, rubbing her hands nervously.
"Well, that's my question too," Ryouko said. "It's more coincidental than makes sense, and I have reasons to believe there are more coincidences on top of that. I don't know what's up with her either. I kind of wonder…"
She let her voice trail off there, because she didn't know how to explain it. How was she supposed to explain that Simona seemed to be part of yet another conspiracy? That Clarisse van Rossum herself had been stonewalled when she investigated? That what little Ryouko had deciphered—that Simona might have been born in a vat, that Simona might have moved to Japan just to find her—came from the Goddess, in hints sprinkled across a vision? That on top of all that Simona was apparently in love with her? It would have been painful to explain in an intimate two‐person conversation, much less here, in the open, while shopping for ornaments.
"Well, she's quite taken with you, I think," Azrael said, shrugging. "If I didn't think it was too crazy, I might have guessed that's what all this was about."
"Does everyone know that?" Ryouko exclaimed, exasperated, turning to glare at Azrael, before directing her gaze at the others. "Did you all know that?"
"I thought it might be the case," Asami said, making a shrugging gesture. "I was going to ask you about it at some point."
"I wasn't really paying attention, to be honest," Patricia said, looking surprised at the vehemence of Ryouko's reaction. "So I don't have anything to say in particular."
"Sorry, sorry, I thought you knew," Azrael said, maybe a gesture of contrition.
Asami put a hand on Ryouko's shoulder.
"Sorry," Ryouko said. "I was just surprised. It frustrates me. I'm not used to this kind of thing."
Azrael cast a glance at the shop owner, then at Ryouko.
"Well, I apologize. I forget sometimes how young you really all are. I gave you adult bodies, for improved flight."
She shuffled side to side for a moment.
"Well, let's buy a few more ornaments, and then we can talk about it. I was going to take you all to my favorite local place, just to eat. We can chat."
"It's complicated," Ryouko said, embarrassed now.
"Everyone thinks that," Patricia said.
She held up a chain that shimmered green, changing the topic.
"Come on, I think this emerald piece is really charming. It's uh—I have no idea what this is for."
"It's just a necklace, Patricia," Azrael said.
Ryouko shook her head in exasperation.
It really is complicated, Clarisse thought. It's not just your imagination. They just don't know all the details.
How am I going to explain any of this without explaining the other stuff, though? Ryouko thought.
You could just explain it, I think, Clarisse thought. They both know about your brain and your connection to the Goddess. There's not really too much more to cover.
Ryouko's eyes widened slightly, even as Asami put the necklace around her neck.
That's a good point, she thought.
"This seems unsafe," Patricia said, peering skeptically over the side of their bench, which was a sheer drop into… well, nothing.
"There's a net," Azrael said, shrugging her shoulders so that her wings followed suit. "I told you, space was always very tight inside the towers, and it was always very expensive to rent or buy. But out here, off the lanes…"
She gestured with one hand at the open air around them.
"Well, rent is free," she said. "As long as you can stay in the air."
More normal humans might have been terrified at their current predicament, seated on a rickety narrow bench over a sheer drop to the planet below, barely attached to what looked like a restaurant strapped to a balloon—to what was a restaurant strapped to a balloon. But all of them were magical girls, and had fallen out of the sky plenty of times both in and out of simulation, or even in the depths of space. Safety was relative.
"Order up!" the human server yelled, placing in front of them something that looked like small, tubular, green shellfish, grilled in garlic and served with a side of fries. Azrael had explained to them that a lot of the food on the colony was grown in huge hydroponics facilities, which made the presence of Earth foods like garlic and potatoes understandable. But shellfish?
"So you asked about Terra Roja's ecosystem before," Azrael said, looking at Asami.
"These are balloon barnacles, which are called that because they stick and grow on the side of anything in the air. They're a huge nuisance sometimes, and you have to clean them off your wings, but hey, at least they're tasty. In the wild, they latch onto the side of these sort of giant, gas‐filled, photosynthetic sacs. They're kind of like parasites."
"They also look like goose barnacles," Asami said, squinting at one.
"That's a coincidence," Azrael said.
Ryouko nibbled on one, finding it juicy, garlicky, umami, and, well, generally delicious. She devoured three more quickly, and found herself wondering what they tasted like raw.
"So let's talk about Simona del Mago," Azrael said, leaning back and opening her wings slightly in the air.
Ryouko grimaced, even as she sucked on a shell. She had transmitted the basics of the situation over to them while they flew, taking advantage of the opportunity to avoid an unpleasant social interaction. But she hadn't yet heard what they had to say about it.
"From a purely statistical point of view, this is a situation you are hardly alone in," Patricia said, in the midst of inhaling a batch of fries. "Having someone crushing on you, or 'in love' with you, when you're already committed, is a very common situation. Fundamentally, unless you and Asami are open to having a more polyamorous relationship—and most people are not—there's just nothing you should feel bad about. Simona might even realize that, since she hasn't tried to say anything to you since you left Earth."
She spoke didactically, as if she were quoting something.
"Well, I've figured that out," Ryouko said, a bit peeved. "I could just read the online guides, but I have a suspicion they're not very good at dealing with the situation where she's also part of a super‐secret conspiracy that has access to beyond‐Governance technology and might have been stalking me since before I knew her. And for the record, no, I'm not interested in a polyamorous relationship; I find one hard to manage already."
"Yeah, that's the wrinkle," Patricia said, surprised by her level of emotion. "Um, I was getting to that."
She cleared her throat, awkwardly dropping a half‐eaten barnacle back into her plate.
"I think you should try to treat the romance and the conspiracy as two completely different subjects," she said. "Just get a clean separation between the two parts of the problem, so you can solve them separately. It's likely they have nothing to do with each other, and whatever thing she has for you is probably getting in the way of whatever she's supposed to be doing."
"That makes sense to me," Azrael said, continuing to eat. "Of course, that might rely on Simona being mature about all this. Part of being an adult is being able to separate aspects of your life that have nothing to do with each other. Personal and professional, so to speak. I'm attracted to you girls, because of my, uh, genetic programming to like smaller humans like in my colony, but I don't let it get in the way of my work. Or this."
Patricia blinked, clearly kind of shocked by the statement, and Ryouko had the sense Azrael was faking her nonchalance.
"Anyway," Azrael added, unable to hide an awkward blush. "I think Simona might be trying to do that too. After all, if she's working for some super‐secret conspiracy, she's probably competent. Though that makes me realize that she's probably not really a teenager…"
"She has to be, if she just contracted," Patricia pointed out.
"Uh, right," Azrael agreed, and Ryouko caught Asami smirking. Azrael was not exactly being perfectly smooth.
Ryouko shook her head at the ongoing conversation.
"I can agree with the general notion, but one of my concerns at the moment is that I'm only sure I can trust her because she has a thing for me. If I make her unhappy, then she becomes dangerous instead."
That argument was actually from her TacComp, since she hadn't really had time to think through the implications to that extent. Or, more honestly, she had been avoiding really thinking about it.
"Well, we didn't say you had to go confront her or explicitly turn her down," Patricia said. "Actually, if we examine your situation in isolation, the most reasonable thing seems to be doing nothing. She hasn't tried to hit on you or anything, and she seems okay just lurking in the background. If that's the way it is, there's no reason to cause drama."
"That sounds dissatisfying," Asami said, shaking her head. Patricia gave her an odd look.
"Some things in life are like that," Patricia said, shrugging. "So I'm told, anyway. I haven't lived long enough for a couple of years to seem like no big deal, but it's supposed to happen eventually. And more practically, you're not going to be on this space station forever, so you won't see her forever either."
"Well, I can definitely do nothing, if that's your advice," Ryouko said, taking a gulp of the fizzy drink the restaurant had provided them with. "That's easy. But now there's also all this other stuff, these conspiracies, and people trying to push me around, and this thing that's in my head. Simona's just a part of that, but it's all just gotten to be too much for me, you know? I think—"
She stopped, considering carefully what she was about to say. Everyone here knew about the thing in her head, and that included the AI that was helping run this sim, but it still worried her to say what she and her TacComp had spent so long talking about.
"I think she has something to do with the thing that's in my head, and all this weird genetic stuff. I told you about my vision—it only stands to reason. If they knew about it, it'd make sense to have someone follow me around, someone to try and be friends with me. And there's the matter of what exactly her wish was. Every magical girl has a wish."
"That would make a certain amount of sense," Patricia said, closing her eyes for a moment. "Do you want to just confront her?"
Ryouko blinked, surprised by the notion, which she had already discarded.
"Confront her? Here?" she asked. "That'd be risky."
"Not too risky, if we help you do it," Patricia said. "Though being on a space station has its pluses and minuses. On the upside, she has nowhere to run to. On the downside, if she tries to do something crazy, it could be really bad. But I don't think she's likely to do anything that crazy."
"If we really needed it, I have experience with space anyway," Asami said.
"I'd be willing to help," Azrael said. "I've confronted plenty of magical girls in my life."
"I'd have to think about it a little, I don't know," Ryouko said, a bit hastily, to try to stall what seemed like a growing consensus. She was being truthful, too—she'd have to think about it and consult with both Clarisses, since she hadn't previously anticipated being able to go in with Patricia and Azrael as well. It just wasn't an encounter she welcomed, in any form.
"Fair enough," Azrael said, shrugging. "I'm not really sure what else we can say on that topic. It's unlikely we could give advice or pursue sources better than Clarisse van Rossum."
"Yeah, I was afraid of that, honestly," Ryouko said.
She started to eat another barnacle, but stopped, overcome by a sense of… not quite unease, but almost déjà vu.
She looked up at the awning that stretched above their seats, an almost artistic arrangement of fabric that flowed like streamers in the wind, from one end to the other, like standing waves.
A holding pattern. That's what she had said she was in, when asked about her life on this space station. But here she was, deferring a decision that might break her out of it. She had said she didn't have enough information, and she didn't, but that wasn't the real reason. She knew quite well what ultimately had to happen, information or not. She was just waiting, stalling, until there was no decision left to make.
She had to get used to taking chances. Force her own terms of engagement, like she did so easily in combat. Ever since she had made a wish to make something of herself, she had waited for the sky to open up and drop what she wanted upon her. Her wish was just doing what she had asked. If she wanted to have some input on where she was going, she needed to take some action herself, instead of letting things be dictated to her.
It was just… difficult.
I can't say I disagree, Clarisse commented.
"You know, we should just do it," Ryouko said, leaning forward to look down the row of wings and faces next to her. "That's the only way to make any kind of progress, right? I don't know that sitting on it will make any real difference. We just need to come up with a plan for how to do it. I'm not sure charging straight into her room is the optimal approach."
Azrael raised an eyebrow, glancing at Asami, who looked surprised, perhaps pleasantly.
"Also fair enough," she said. "I might suggest talking to Vlad and Van Rossum first, then. They might have some other insights into the question, and they already know all they need to know."
"I could try having a drone spy on her for a while," Patricia said. "I'm not sure what I could find that Vlad wouldn't be able to pull from his surveillance, but we can't just assume he'd help us. And if she spots the drone—well, we were going to confront her anyway."
"That seems reasonable," Ryouko said. "If you don't mind helping me."
Patricia just smiled and shrugged, taking a sip of her drink.
"Let's focus on eating," she said. "I think we can take a break from all this, for now."
Ryouko was glad to enjoy the silence that followed, polishing off the rest of her barnacles with ruthless efficiency. They were quite good.
It was only when she was done, stretching her arms out above her head, that she remembered where she was, that she had a tail fanned out behind her, and that she was seated above a sheer drop to a crushing death. She had gotten used to everything, amazingly, and she twitched her wings self‐consciously.
She looked around. The others were also nearly done eating. Was it time to leave the sim?
Patricia caught her eye, then, and Ryouko turned to complete the eye contact.
"I did, uh, want to say something more," Patricia said.
Ryouko tilted her head, uncertain how she should react.
"I know you're worried about the thing in your head and what it is, what it might be doing to you, and what others might think of it, but you shouldn't let it eat at you. You're not as unique as you think. If I may…"
She looked around, pausing on Asami and Azrael in turn, in a way that made clear they had talked about this beforehand.
Patricia sucked in a breath.
"So, I know this isn't exactly the same as your situation, but it's a little analogous," Patricia said, tapping her fingers on the counter. "I was… the academic lowlight of my family. That's not an easy thing in the Von Rohrs. I made a wish to change that, and ever since… I've always had to wonder about me. About whether these ideas in my head are even mine, about whether I'm the same person I once was. I avoid my family, because I don't like being reminded how much better they treated me after I made my wish. I avoid my old friends and I… used to wonder who I even was."
The words came out flat, but measured, with occasional hesitation, and Patricia avoided making eye contact, until she turned towards Ryouko at the very end.
"As you can see, it's not easy for me to talk about," she said. "Partly that's just a lack of practice. But I want to impress upon you that you are you, regardless of what else is going on, what brain parts you have, what Simona is up to, and what wishes may or may not have done. You have to live your life. That's what I learned, in the end."
"And don't forget about my parents," Asami added. "I… wouldn't say I've gotten over that. But I've at least learned not to let it eat at me when they're not around."
Ryouko looked between the other girls, realizing the point they were trying to make. None of them was free of worry, about who they were and what their lives were for. She wasn't alone.
"Thank you," she said, because it seemed like the right thing to say. "I'll try to keep this in mind. Just keep an eye on me, alright?"
"I always do," Azrael said.
Before they could respond to the joke, more plates of food arrived, suspiciously timed.
"Alright, so these may look like giant chicken wings," Azrael explained. "But actually, this is basically a species of native bird…"
Ryouko shook her head at the diversion, looking back at the awning.
"So what is it?" Mami asked, watching the reaction of Vladimir Volokhov, the rather pointedly‐named Director of Adept Blue.
"We don't know," the AI said, shaking its head. "But we do know that it shines like a beacon on our new sensors whenever we start a new experiment with our volunteers. The space‐time there is wrong somehow, too warped."
The avatar raised both its hands, summoning a hovering, misshapen orb, shaded by shifting primary colors.
"This is a representation of what we've been able to infer about the space‐time structure in the region. We shouldn't even be able to see anything at this range, but the signals are quite clear. One of the theoreticians thinks that it is somehow much closer to us than it should be."
"Should we be concerned?" Mami asked.
"I do not know," Volokhov said, dispelling the sphere and clasping his hands behind his back. "We have theories. We know it does not resemble a nascent wormhole. It almost looks like an artificial black hole, but twisted. We are still working on the hypergeometry. Sometimes, pieces seem to tear off and move away. Our best idea—and this is just speculation at the moment—is that they are containing these shards somehow for transport. For use in a weapon, perhaps? Or as fuel. Gravitonic containment is, as you know, nearly impossible. We will have to have Miss Nakihara run some more experiments for us."
"The location of this anomaly overlaps directly with the pulsar facility in the latest survey," Anand said, looking at Mami from the corner of her eye. The AI, naturally, did not know about that survey.
"Yes, a pulsar," Volokhov said, blinking. "I took the liberty of consulting some astrogation charts after this discovery. There is a pulsar there, which surprised us, since it wasn't at all obvious in the sensor data. I've already put in the request for a long‐range astronomical study of the emissions, to look for anomalies."
"Should we send a probe?" Anand asked.
"Maybe, maybe not," Mami said, rubbing her eyes for a moment. "At the moment, the facility appears nearly undefended. If we send something it might tip them off that we noticed them. Let's run some simulations."
She looked at Volokhov.
"And continue your long‐range studies."
"Of course," the AI said.
Mami looked at the others for a moment.
"That was it," Anand said. "I just wanted to bring this to your attention."
"Ah, sure," Mami said. "If you don't mind, I need to talk to the Director about some other issues…"
"Of course," Anand said, catching the blatant hint. "We'll meet up later."
She disappeared from the simulation, departure accentuated by a sparkle effect.
"And how worried should we be about the source of these new sensors?" Mami asked, looking the AI in the eye.
"In this case, I developed them myself," he said. "Taking advantage of the lab facilities and our new volunteers. They don't even operate without Miss Nakihara and Miss Shizuki acting as power sources. Our mysterious new visitor played no role in this."
"I'm glad to hear it. I don't like this game that is being played."
"By this new faction?" Volokhov asked, tilting his head questioningly. "Or by Miss Chitose?"
"Either. Both. I just don't like it," Mami said.
"Understandable. I will be keeping an eye on her."
He looked at Mami a second longer, then, sensing he was no longer needed, disappeared as well.
Mami summoned the sensor data for herself, leaning back onto the conference table to stare at the orb.
Maybe we should do a cross‐check of known pulsars and Cephalopod activity, Machina thought. If this isn't an experimental facility, it stands to reason that it's not the only one of its kind. We might learn something.
That's a good idea, Mami thought. Do it.
She stared at the orb a moment longer. They had spent too long in this war waiting for the next Ceph move, too many years letting the squid dictate the terms of engagement. Erwynmark had always understood that, even in the long years after the Saharan Raid.
If whatever this was panned out, turned out to be useful, then they finally had a chance to act, even if only in a small way. If it panned out.
Fuel, she thought, or a weapon.