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Generated: May 31, 2020 1:41 PM
Post last updated: May 31, 2020 1:41 PM
the stars are free
Foresight and Cherish in the Honor Harrington universe
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Margaret is on her way to work, walking instead of flying today so she can drink her coffee without spilling it, when she sees the cryptid. She's a truly far-out one, no limbs to speak of, just a long snaky body with a mirror for a face. Margaret smiles at her and goes to walk on by, but the cryptid slithers right at her all of a sudden and--hits?--Margaret with the giant mirror. Except she doesn't experience getting whacked with a sheet of glass.

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And she's quite thoroughly elsewhere. The place is crowded, noisy, and smells industrial. Like heat and oil and exhaust. There's a metal grating beneath her feet, and there's several people turning to look at her. Their words are hard to catch, but either they have thick accents or a weird dialect or are only speaking something in English's general family.

And as someone reaches for their belt, this place is quite dangerous.

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"Woah!" How on Earth does a mirror-headed snake count as pretty enough to do that? Also, aaaaa, she's gonna be attacked!

The people turning to look at her see: a horned woman with metallic silvery scales instead of skin, blue slit-pupiled eyes, and wide silver wings. Her white lace dress and copious jewelry look like a team of brilliant but old-fashioned seamstresses got handed the entire budget of a small country and told they could do anything except exercise restraint. Both her clothing and her body are covered in opals too perfect not to be manufactured. 

She puts her hands in front of her, open-palmed, and says in a clear but frightened voice, "Hello! I'm very lost, I didn't mean to be here!" (Unspoken but obvious subtext: so please don't shoot me for trespassing.)

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A couple of people mutter at that.

One person calls out something. It might include the word 'what'.

People are backing away from her a bit, eyeing something behind her, and there's a small commotion.

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Oh no, what's behind her? She turns around, stepping away from whatever it is.

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Several people, in what look like uniforms, two with what're probably handguns unsheathed, though there's something distinctly odd about the design. The front is a woman, her expression harsh, who barks something to her people when Margaret turns.

The street people are steering well clear of the uniforms.

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Oh great, she's been dropped in a foreign country and right on top of cops or soldiers or something. Margaret joins in the general steering-clear and backing-away while also looking all around to see if she can figure out what sort of building she's in.

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Apparently not one - 'industrial district' might be more likely, since that's possibly a smoggy sky over her head.

And those soldiers are distinctly heading towards her, the one in front barking out what sounds like an order.

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"Sorry, I don't speak the language! Do you speak English?" Hopefully this is one of those utterances which will convey its meaning by not being comprehensible.

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A pause, and, slowly and heavily accented, the woman says, "You are trespassing. Daija does not permit Edeneras."

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Oh, thank goodness. Slowly and carefully enunciated: "I am sorry. I am here by mistake. If I should not be here I will leave. Where should I go?" She can find out where Daija is and whether Edeneras means magical girls when she isn't disturbing people.

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"You are to come with us."

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Nod. Nervous following? Her danger sense is still very much active but at least they don't appear to be attacking her right this minute. And to be fair, she doesn't know how well she'd react if someone spontaneously appeared at her.

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They fall into a loose formation around her. She's led out of the industrial district, towards a large brick building set on a small hill. Smog lingers over the city, hiding any stars, but as they leave the taller buildings it becomes apparent this place has an active airport of some kind - there's large craft coming and going, and a trail of light like a meteor or descending shuttle blazes near the horizon.

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Those don't look like the airplanes she's used to. She tries to read any of the signage, or at least recognize an alphabet or a flag or something.

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They seem to have similar aesthetics in flags as many she'd be used to - broad stripes with stars, though these have stripes of what're probably greens and blues, and only three large stars. 

The alphabet is... She could probably sound things out and even get most of them. It's definitely Latin-derived, including mostly familiar numbers, and if she sounds anything out it sounds vaguely like a romance language, maybe influenced heavily by Japanese or vice-versa. Though, there seems to be symbols that look a lot like Chinese or Japanese on some signs - if she's familiar with either language she'll be able to piece together some of the phrases, even with most of the symbols being simplified. The industrial district contains a lot of shops, most advertising repair work, or pawn, or cheap parts. The building she's being led to is marked as some kind of center.

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She can't read Chinese or Japanese, but she's starting to expect she may have been sent forward in time. Hopefully this is a place and era with American consulates in it. She heads into the some sort of center.

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It's bland inside. Harshly lit. Solid concrete, painted an off-white. Their footsteps echo.

There's a security guard, who looks bored and eyes her with poorly concealed disdain. He has a short conversation with the lead person before letting them in.

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Margaret still doesn't have anything to say until she finds someone who looks interested in either asking questions or answering them, so she just tries to pick up as many words of the local language as she can manage.

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The lead guard takes her to what seems to be a rather bare questioning room. She sits, and gestures Margaret to a chair across from her. "How did you get where you were?" she demands after a moment.

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"One minute I was walking down the street in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States. Then a cryptid that looked like a snake with a mirror for a face--I can give you a picture if you want--hit me with its mirror, and suddenly I was standing where you found me." Is this plausible? Not really! But it's the only truth she's got.

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"United States?" She pauses. "That is - old. Your language is old."

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"Yes. I--I think I might be lost in time. It was the 2030s, this morning." Her voice shakes as she confronts the thought that everyone she knows might be dead of old age.

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"- Wormholes do not do that?" she says, questioningly. A pause. "Engineered beings do not do that. I do not know what a cryptid is."

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"I've only heard of wormholes in fiction. A cryptid is--do you still have magical girls?"

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" - The fiction?"

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Oh dear. "No, the reality. Would you like to see a small, harmless demonstration of my magical powers, as proof that I'm not just completely insane and wearing a lot of makeup?"

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Skeptically raised eyebrow. "Sure."

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She turns her horns purple, then radically changes their shape (in a way that doesn't disrupt the jewelry hanging off them), then puts them back. "I can do something else if you know a way to fake that."

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The woman's silent for several long moments. "Holograms, maybe," she says, slowly. "But you are - changed? From - first human."

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"If you mean, did I start out as an ordinary human and then modify myself, yes. Should I just explain from the beginning, or do you want more proof?"

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"I mean... There are ways, to make a baby not like parents. Edeneras."

"Our leader will want a - fuller explanation. They are very interested. But basics are good now."

She seems vaguely uncomfortable, still.

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"I don't know what Edeneras are, but I'll explain my thing first. In the time and place I'm from, a small fraction of girls get the option to do magic sometime between the ages of eight and sixteen. It starts out as just the shapeshifting ability. If you use it to get far enough from human, you get the ability to shapeshift your clothes and some other powers unique to you. If you go too far from human, it scrambles your brain. We also have swarms, which are these little black bugs that appear out of nowhere and combine into monsters and attack people."

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"We do not have that." Her eyes go unfocused for a few seconds - "There is no quick search for that in history. Edeneras have changed DNA, are less human."

Her accent's getting less, whatever translation software she's referencing getting better, or her getting more used to the pronunciation. 

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"If you don't have any records, that suggests I'm in some sort of parallel future, rather than my own. But either way I don't know how to get back. I should probably assume I'm stuck here and get a job and things, and then if I snap back to my own time or something it can be a pleasant surprise."

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"Our leader will provide for your needs."

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That's the most ominous offer of free stuff she's ever heard. Possibly the translation's fault. "That's very nice of you. Still, I'd like to help out where I can rather than freeloading. Is there somewhere I should talk to about getting a legal identity?"

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"You will be provided one, yes."

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"Okay, good. Any reason I shouldn't go do that now? Or I can just wander around a bit if I need to wait for something. Oh, maybe you could give me directions to a library?"

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"You are not free to go."

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"Huh? Why not?" And who are you, anyway, when you were just a random person dealing with a stranded time traveller it wasn't important but now that you're claiming authority it is.

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"Our leader has expressed interest in you, and all modified humans must be in service to the nation."

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"Who is your leader? Are you part of the government?" What sort of messed-up future has she wound up in?

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"Our leader is Premier Marian Yashagoro. I am the chief of police of district eighty-seven."

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So the criminals are the government, or at least think they can convince her of such. Figures.

"What do you want? In the short term and the long term."

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"Personally? I'd like to follow my orders without resorting to violence, and retire eventually to somewhere nice. As a state? We seek the flourishing of our human population. Premier Yashagoro also seeks to know all things."

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"Those are good things to want," she says in a conciliatory voice. "Can you tell me more about what you expect my future to look like?" (It looks like learning a lot and then running off to somewhere else at the first opportunity, if she can manage it.)

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"We will test to see how your talents are best turned towards the common good, and then you will use them in service of that good."

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"That sounds good." And she's going to want to know what her comparative advantage is when she runs away to somewhere not run by kidnappers. Though she should probably pretend to be worse at things than she is, just for the sake of knowing things they don't. Relatedly, "Can I get something to eat first, though? I hadn't had breakfast when I had the magical accident."

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"Of course. We take care of our assets."

And food and water - fairly plain, tasting off compared to the food Margaret's used to - can be brought.

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She wasn't expecting future food to taste familiar, but she was sort of expecting it to taste better than this. Hopefully this is just her captors failing to make an effort, rather than extreme stagnation in food technology. But it's free food and she can tell it isn't drugged, so she eats it.

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The police chief leaves for a time, and when she returns - after Margaret has finished eating - she commands Margaret to follow her.

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She follows. They aren't treating her like they've realized the full implications of her powers for self-defense, which is good, because she wants to keep those possibilities theoretical as long as possible.

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The possibilities do, indeed, remain theoretical for quite a while - though their leader despite apparent curiosity does avoid directly meeting with her. There's intense curiosity about the limits of her powers, when they activate, how dangerous is 'danger', if they have a person involved administering a test that the administrator is convinced is dangerous but isn't actually will it trigger for instance...

And they put her to work. Mostly, they find, she's really good at keeping ships doing high-risk maneuvers from blowing up. Which means they can push the envelope on experimental hyperspace travel, and move 'workers' around faster - they're having trouble with raiders, is the rumor, though the supervisors are fairly good at keeping 'workers' from talking to each other.

But Margaret, if she's patient and watchful and diligent, will get a sliver of an opportunity, during one of the larger and more complicated movements of 'workers' (they're barely even pretending to not be slavers with this particular spaceship) to seize control. She's on the bridge near-constantly after all, and the captain's worked with her enough that he's forgotten he can't trust her...

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Margaret plays along, outwardly, but all her attention is focused getting ready to run. She sees how they treat the people they find less interesting or less useful, and resolves to make some trouble on the way out if she gets half a chance. Maybe she can give someone else an opening too.

She lets the experimenters see how good she is at detecting physical danger, but conceals most of her ability to detect hostile intent. No matter what the experimenters believe while running the tests, she's always detecting the presence or absence of a real threat.

Guiding ships through hyperspace would be an amazing job if not for who she was working for. Between the danger sense and the advance perception, she always knows just which way to jink to reduce the stresses of the higher hyper bands. She gets prophecies too, more days than not; some of them are advice for ship captains (recommending slower and safer routes, and perhaps ignored); others are for her ears only. She manages to filch a couple things that might be useful: an extra ration bar here, a roll of duct tape there. It's easy to hide things in pockets that can seal themselves shut. She looks like a harmless, cooperative little navigator. And she waits.

Until the day when the bridge is just her and the captain and the first officer, and they make the mistake of standing too close too each other where she can come up behind them. Suddenly her hands hold the ends of rubber straps, wrapping around their eyes and noses and filling their mouths so they can neither give alarm nor draw a breath. 

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They go down quite easily, being entirely unenhanced humans with no real training in hand-to-hand.

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Margaret has no training either, just a lot of pent-up anger and the power of accessories. 

She also doesn't have training in flying the ship by herself. Once she's made sure her opponents are unconscious and tied them up with the duct tape, she heads to the internal control board. If she can seal off the engine room from the rest of the ship, then a majority of the local ability to do things will belong to people with a reason to support this hijacking. (In the back of her mind, she remembers The Martian and wonders if this technically makes her a space pirate.)

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Sealing the engine room off works, though it'll take her a few minutes and perhaps a check of the manual.

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The ship isn't in danger and the officers went down without giving the alarm; she can spare the time to check the manual and be sure she's doing this right. 

Once the engine room is sealed, though, it's only a matter of time (and not much time) before someone there notices it. She needs to secure control of the rest of the ship by then.

Margaret flips on the main intercom, the one used to warn all aboard to brace for takeoff of hyper transition. "Prisoners!" she declares. "This ship has been hijacked by one of your own! Rise up, take down your guards, and we can all be free within the hour! They can't stop all of us! Guards, surrender if you value your lives above your masters' profit!" Then she leaps to stand to one side of the door, shield on one arm and the other ready to take out anyone bursting in.

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There's a pause - and Margaret won't be able to hear any mundane sounds of a struggle through all the metal - 

And then three people burst in, all wielding assorted guns.

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Margaret feels their hostility while they're still outside, sees them enter a few seconds ahead. If they think they have the element of surprise, that mistake might just save her despite her own lack of a gun. Cables materialize in her hand, trying to entangle her opponents and especially their weapons.

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They're not expecting that; one gets entangled, one loses their gun, and one gets off a shot that goes wide in the chaos. 

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The dropped gun gets kicked into a corner while she keeps getting in the way of their eyes and hands. It's three against one, but she knows every move they're about to make. Changing what's in her hands requires a moment in starscape, so she leaves the entangled guy as is and focuses on the one who managed to fire.

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He's not used to this kind of combat, especially not against a precog, so she'll be able to anticipate his shots -

The one she disarmed pulls a smaller gun off his waist. They're not bullets, at least, more like really fancy tasers, but getting hit by one will hurt.

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Electricity doesn't damage her as much as it would a baseline, thanks to her highly conductive outer layer, but if anything that actually makes it more painful. The injuries aren't visible enough to heal quickly, either. She shrieks, repairs the burns on her clothes and makes a knife to slash at the hand holding the new weapon, fights on unbalanced by the burns between her scales and her flesh.

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They press the attack more, sensing her weakness - 

And one goes down with a crack as a tall, burly woman bursts through the door and brings a wrench down on his head.

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Oh thank goodness the inspiring speech worked

Margaret is both less surprised and more encouraged by wrench woman than her opponents are; she finds the strength and speed to rip the taser away from its wielder and send it spinning across the floor.

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Wrench woman isn't her only backup. A slighter boy - who looks grown into his features, though is still quite a bit more short and slender than most teenagers - slips in behind her, apparently having appropriated some jumper cables or similar as a weapon.

Between the three of them and surprise, the guards are going to go down quickly.

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Then when they are no longer all actively engaged in combat, Margaret will heal herself more thoroughly and say, "H-hello. Thank you both; you have excellent timing."

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"Thank you," says the woman. Her voice is deep and accented. "We thought you might need more help than others, and we were close, though the guards were not easy to get past. But they do not think much about how strong high-grav mods make you."

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Oh crap there's the adrenaline crash. Now Margaret is sagging against the doorframe. Come on, she tells herself, not time to fall over yet. "Who else needs help? Also I can't fly the ship."

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"Probably someone can. And there's problems all over. Can you heal others?" the woman asks.

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"Just myself, sorry. Should we stash these guards somewhere and go looking for trouble, then?"

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The woman grins, a bit terrifyingly. "Let's."

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Apparently when you decide violence is the answer you have to keep doing violence until there's no more question. That thought didn't make a ton of sense. Whatever. She will follow the scary competent person into More Trouble.

"I can tell when hostile people are nearby," she says, as they presumably head out the door.

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"That'll be helpful. Someone's taken the security center, so they don't have cameras anymore," the woman says. "What else can you do?"

They pass a very still guard sprawled at the side of the hallway with their helmet pointing the wrong way.

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"I can see what people are about to do before they do it, and I can make things but they disappear when I stop holding them," she summarizes. 

 She looks at the downed guard, then away. Not thinking about it, what she's trying to stop is worse, just keep going.

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"If I showed you a ranged weapon, could you make something like that?" she asks.

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"Probably not. I could make something that looked like it, but any parts I couldn't see I couldn't get right. I have to know a lot about what I'm doing. Though maybe something that looks like a gun but isn't could still be useful."

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"Damn. Their guns are fingerprint locked. They probably won't believe we've gotten one we can fire."

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"Darn. Though, uh, I could have someone else's fingerprint if I got a look at their finger." Having fingerprints at all would be super weird, but it's better than melee combat."

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"We'll loot the next guard, then."

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"Alright." Once she gets within a few hundred feet of danger, she can steer them either toward or away from it. Probably toward, since they aren't pushing for anywhere in particular beyond "secure more of the ship".

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Indeed, this really isn't a very organized rebellion.

Still, they can pick up a few others, including people who know anything at all about strategy.

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More people: good. People who know anything about strategy: great. Margaret isn't thinking of herself as anything like the leader of this rebellion; she'll happily take direction from anyone who seems to know what they're doing.

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People give her sort of first pick at leadership, but when it's clear she doesn't want the position, someone else takes over smoothly. The woman with the wrench who first rescued her is in charge of a major segment, in fact.

Slowly, violently, they take the ship, until the last guards are starting to surrender.

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She knew this was going to be violent when she started it. It's still more injury and death than she's seen in the entire rest of her life combined. She's relieved when guards start to surrender, and even more relieved when it turns out a ship like this has enough places to confine people that they can respect those surrenders. 

They're still all dead if they don't find anyone who can fly the ship.

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...It's possible the people who know how to fly the ship are, themselves, already dead. They can manage sublight propulsion - that's practically automated - but they're floating far from any stars.

It's fortunate, someone mutters, they weren't in hyperspace during the revolution.

What, so they can die slow instead of fast, someone else mutters back.

(There's a creeping thrum of danger permeating the air, humming along the lines of the ship, swirling around everyone with a shortening temper and rising fear - )

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Looks like "start things off and hope someone else takes over from there" wasn't a complete plan. She straightens up to her full height, spreads her wings a bit, and speaks over the muttering, trying to sound calm and authoritative.

"There is no need to panic. We don't need one person who knows how to fly the ship; we just need to be able to figure it out collectively. I watched it being done; some of the rest of you probably know important things about it. I'm going to the bridge; anyone who thinks they might be able to help should come with me, and together we can figure it out. Trouble will come and we will not end here."

This last is spoken in a voice no human can speak with; the words linger and echo in the air in a way that makes it obvious that they are magic.

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That startles some people - enough they grow silent.

And, slowly, a handful start to volunteer to follow her, while others start to organize the rest to find food and medical supplies.

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Back to the bridge, then. Hopefully someone cleaned up the variously taken-out people. 

Margaret attempts to decipher the control panels enough to determine where they are. Are they close enough to a civilized star system to reach it without hyper, or do they need to figure that out too? Probably the latter.

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There's some blood smears but it looks like the clean-up has gotten here at least.

They're five light-years away from a civilized star system, which is their original destination.

The next non-hostile star system is another twenty light-years away.

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Okay, so even if you don't constrain "civilized" to mean "won't just re-enslave them all" they still have to learn to work the hyper drive. They could also try activating the emergency distress beacon, but between their location and their ship's ID she doesn't like their odds on who would show up to help. So, looks like it's down to their combined knowledge and any manuals they can pull up.

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Manuals: exist, but assume a lot of prior knowledge and schooling.

One person on the ship has ever been part of the piloting crew of a hyper-capable ship, but that was twenty years ago and the way they organize controls has changed somewhat dramatically.

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Fortunately, control panel configurations are one of the things the manuals have the most detail on. Unfortunately, that still leaves a lot of gaps. They debate options for many minutes. Margaret explains that her danger sense is uninformative about which actions will increase or decrease the danger she's in, so she can't just contemplate pressing a button and learn how it will go. 

Eventually, they agree that a particular series of actions has about an 80% get them safely into hyper, and a 20% chance of splattering their atoms across a multi-light-second radius. Someone suggests telling the rest of the ship before they try it; someone else suggests definitely not telling. Margaret stands by the panel that would be her part of the sequence, twisting the rings on her fingers until someone with skin would have scraped it raw.

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- There's a ding from the console.

Margaret would recognize it; she's been on this bridge often enough.

It's an incoming hail. 

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Everyone with their hands poised above consoles is glad enough to stop when she says, "Wait".

Can she figure out who's hailing before she opens a call? There's no time to steal a guard's uniform, but she can at least gesture at someone more human-looking to get in front of the video pickup.

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Someone more human-looking steps forward.

The mystery ship's identification is as a merchant liner.

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It's a better chance than the one they were about to take. She picks up.

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A woman appears, dressed formally, but not in a recognizably military style.

"This is Captain Cherish Uccelo of the merchant liner Pinion. We're in need of medical aid and engineering assistance."

(Scans don't seem to indicate anything wrong with their ship, but, well, this is tricky equipment.)

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"Ah," says Designated Talking Guy, "We may be able to help, but we're rather in need of help ourselves. We have medical supplies aboard, and some amount of engineering capacity, but our pilot was incapacitated and we can't go anywhere."

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"Is that related to why you're out of uniform?"

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". . . Yes. Can you describe what help you need?"

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Margaret wishes they had had time to find the best available liar and get them a uniform. Or that she could detect hostile intent over video.

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She describes some very plausible sounding needed help! That, to be addressed properly, will require them letting her injured onto their ship to use their medical facilities.

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There is a hasty debate over the medium of significant glances, which Margaret wins by dint of being able to hold up a sign with words on it ("Say yes and steal a uniform before they get here!").

"We can provide medical facilities," says the spokesperson, "though possibly not medical personnel, so if you have your own medic you should send them too." He glanced at some maps and tells her where her shuttle can dock.

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"I wouldn't mind more of a brief on what's happened to your ship. Maybe we can help each other."

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The spokesperson takes too long to come up with a good lie, or even a bad one. It's obvious that the other captain is getting suspicious, and if she figures out what's up while they have a medical bay full of her wounded that will go even worse than whatever will happen if they put their cards on the table now. 

Margaret steps into view of the camera, horns, wings, decidedly non-uniform gown and all. "We are not this ship's original crew."

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"Then who are you?"

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She hopes she looks more "desperado" than "desperate", and bets everything on the morals of the stranger on the screen. "We're escaped slaves. We hijacked the ship transporting us."

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"Good for you."

"In that case, I am Captain Treasure X, of the Audubon Ballroom's Trouble."

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Margaret almost collapses in relief at "good for you" and has to steady herself on the console. "I'm glad to hear it," she says, "but I'm afraid I don't actually know what the Audobon Ballroom is." She looks around at the others, hoping to at least find out if they're all confused too or if this is an obvious thing she's missed learning since she got to this time.

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A few look confused, a few have a dawning look of disbelieving hope.

"We're an anti-slavery organization," says Captain X, "Though some call us terrorists. We had been going to a planet we heard was using slave labor - I suspect the same you were destined for. It's fortunate we ran into you here."

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"Confused" and "disbelieving hope" just about sum it up, yeah.

"It really is! We don't have anyone who knows how to get into hyper safely."

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"We can send you some of our pilots, and provide an escort back somewhere safe, then."

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"Great. Ah, do you in fact need medical help?"

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"No; that's usually an effective lie for getting us on a ship, though."

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"I can see how it would be, yes." She's hardly going to blame Captain Treasure for lying, since that makes all of them. And now they can coordinate getting someone who knows what they're doing over here to fly the ship.

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That's easy enough; the Trouble has more pilots and navigators than they strictly need, and plenty of small, swift craft to go between ships.

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And presumably Treasure, or really any of the people who grew up in this universe, knows of a solidly anti-slavery planet with a social safety net and a willingness to take refugees. There's loads of planets, right, surely one of them is Space Canada.

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"I'm curious about you specifically - the one with the scales. I haven't seen genetic modifications like that, or heard about contact with a new alien species," Captain X addresses to Margaret. "Are you needed on your ship, or do you mind coming over to talk with me more? Some representatives from your people wouldn't hurt, either way, so we can figure out where to go from here."

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"I can definitely come over and explain the scales, but someone else should come too, I'm kind of a bad representative. It's a long story." She looks around the bridge. "Now that we have a moment to actually think about it, who wants to be the representative? And someone should get on the intercom and tell the rest of the ship what's up, I can do that bit." She goes off a little ways and concisely informs everyone not on the bridge of recent developments while the people who are here figure out who's going.

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There seems to be a debate between leaving them with competent leadership in case something goes wrong and sending someone actually representative.

Eventually they decide to send the tall woman who originally rescued Margaret along.

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Seems like a good pick. "I never got your name," she says on their way over. "I'm Margaret."

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Small smile. "I'm Alet. Good to meet you, Margaret."

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"It's good to meet you too. Thanks for all your help back there."

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"Thank you. You've done a lot."

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"It worked out a lot better than I was afraid it would."

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"We got lucky, in many ways. But a lot of us have been planning on our own - we just never got an opening."

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"Yeah, that's what I was betting on. If I hadn't gotten lucky someone else probably would have."

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"Might not have been in time, or while we were out of hyperspace, though."

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"Yeah. Well, no need to worry about it now."

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Alet nods, silent, and the shuttle begins to approach for docking at the Trouble.

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Margaret watches the docking with interest; the interstellar future is still cool even if it happens to be accompanied by a surplus of shenanigans. Presumably someone on the Trouble will tell them where to go from here.

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Someone does, and they're escorted to a conference room with Captain X. It's understated, but not uncomfortable, and the table is small-ish and round.

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She takes a seat and fiddles with one of her several bracelets. "Hello. Do you want to ask questions, or do you just want the whole weird story from the beginning?"

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"From the beginning, please."

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"So, I think I'm from a parallel universe, where it's the twenty-first century and magic exists . . . " She gives an overview of magical girls and swarms, with illustrative minor shapeshifting, and explains about the mirror snake and subsequent events. "And then we all took out the guards, and tried to get the ship moving again, and that's when you arrived," she concludes. "I know it sounds rather implausible."

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"I've heard odder, but not much. Still, I also haven't heard of genetic engineering that can do - well, this."

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"I doubt it could be done with genetic engineering alone--for one thing, I violate conservation of energy."

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"That does sound like it'd be a thorny problem."

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Nod. "So, I've pretty much given up on ever getting home, or at least on being able to do make progress on it from this end. So I'm looking for somewhere I can, you know, be part of society and do good in the world and stuff."

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"Well, the Audubon Ballroom is always recruiting, or we can try to get you set up somewhere with good anti-slavery laws."

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"Are you recruiting for jobs that don't involve much violence? Because today was my first time being in a fight between humans and. I don't want. More of that." 

Today was not the first time she's heard someone break a bone. It was the first time she heard it and thought good, one more down.

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"Yes. We actually have a lot of need for intelligence agents, for lobbyists, for medical personnel and social workers, and for administrative positions. Not as exciting as being an anti-slavery pirate, but."

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"Less exciting sounds nice. I was a data analyst back home, I could probably learn to do the analysis side of intelligence work if not the part that requires passing for human."

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"That'd be helpful, yeah, though it might take a bit of finagling - this cell mostly does the exciting space piracy part, but we can get you background checked and transferred."

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"Thanks! I don't mind waiting until it's convenient. I guess the first priority is finding somewhere to send the other ship."

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"Yes. And getting everyone sorted, integrated where they want to be with whatever supplies they need - and this is a bigger ship than we usually hit."

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"Yeah. I can run errands if you're short-handed and think I wouldn't just be in the way. Hopefully the ship has some supplies we can use; I'm not sure how long a trip it was prepped for."

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"We weren't short handed, but we likely will be with both ships to look after."

"And most ships prep for longer trips than they're taking, since hyper-travel's a bit unpredictable. Still, figuring that out's going to be one of our bigger preparation tasks."

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"That makes sense. What's the immediate next thing?" 

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"How about we have you help inventory supplies, while I talk logistics with the ship rep?"

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"Sounds good! I'll head over there and get started."

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"Alright."

And a shuttle back can be provided.

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Inventorying things is the same everywhere, bio lab supplies or one's own groceries or the provisions on a spaceship. Margaret can occupy herself this way for a while; spaceships carry a lot of stuff.

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They get everything under way soon enough, bouncing people back and forth. 

Captain X ends up leaving her ship under her second's command, and takes over the captaining of the larger transport as they move through hyperspace.

Also, she would like to talk to Margaret.

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Getting safely into hyper again is a relief. And Margaret is happy to talk to Captain X; what's up?

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Captain X is in one of the smaller conference rooms, a large, six-limbed cat-like creature perched on the table next to her, with a tabby sort of pattern.

"Margaret! Glad you could make it. I'd wanted to introduce you to Edna Millay, my ship's treecat, and get some more details on your power."

The 'cat blinks at Margaret.

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Okay, is the critter a pet or a crew member, that was ambiguous and anything she does in response has a fifty percent chance of being super awkward. Or she can go for a guarantee of moderately awkward. "Hello Edna," she says to the treecat, then adds to the Captain, "I haven't heard of treecats, so I'm afraid I'm missing some context."

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"I'm not too surprised. Treecats are empathic, generally, and telepathic among themselves. Edna's empathy sometimes works a bit like your danger sense, so she'd wanted to compare notes, as it were. She's usually playing bodyguard to me."

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The 'cat's a crew member, then, got it. "That sounds neat. I've never met an empathic magical girl, but there might well be one. So, danger sense: I can tell roughly how much danger I'm in, what location it's coming from, whether the danger is of physical injury or something else or both, and whether it's from a hostile person or something in my environment." Or a swarm, but this place doesn't have those.

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"Can you intend to take an action, and figure out if that would put you in more danger?"

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"It depends on whether the danger is from something already present. If I contemplate going into a room and it's full of toxic gas, I'll notice; if I contemplate mixing two chemicals and they'll react to produce a toxic gas, I won't."

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"So useful for some planning, but not as precog..."

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"Right. I do have a few seconds worth of precog for things and people moving around, but it basically only works for motion and not for things like conversations."

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She nods. "Would it help if we got you to the bridge during any fights?"

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"It depends on how fast I can convey information to other people, or I suppose to computers, and how fast they can act on it. If there are a lot of cases where it helps to know a few seconds in advance what someone is about to do, then yeah."

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"The most useful thing might be to trigger depressurization counter-measures if we're about to lose pressure - though it'll only react to danger to you?"

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"The danger sense is specific to me, but the few seconds of precog would probably pick up on depressurization unless it's surprisingly non-obvious visually. And I'd be in as much danger from losing air as anyone else."

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"Our sensors are pretty fast at picking it up, but a few extra seconds could still save lives - we might just put you on the bridge or medbay, which are some of the riskier places to lose pressure, with a specialized alert feed for pressure losses, and an ability to pre-alert the system."

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"That sounds like a good plan. Also, I should mention, if I'm ever likely to need to wear a spacesuit I should sort something out in advance. I don't think I know enough about spacesuits to make one myself by magic, and if I just wear a random one I haven't decorated I'll have next to no powers except the shapeshifting. I might be able to modify one to be pretty and have room for my wings and then put it back to normal afterward."

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"Modern spacesuits are pretty simple, and are usually actually wearable under clothes. I can have someone from my crew who knows how they work sit down with you?"

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"That would be great, thanks. If they're that small I can probably come up with something that lets me use all my magic without modifying the suit much if at all."

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She nods. "A bigger problem might be the helmet, but current designs can snap into place as they're needed, and I expect you could manage something appropriately aesthetic."

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"Probably, yeah. Especially if it's just a clear shell and doesn't have a lot of stuff built into it."

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"Usually any air filters are around the base, since they don't fold away as easily as the head-piece."

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"That makes sense. I should be fine, then." 

She looks at Edna. "Do you have a spacesuit too? I haven't seen any of your species before, but if there are a lot of you I would assume they've figured it out." 

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"Her species isn't usually space faring, but there's enough who've gotten attached to spacers that you can buy suits for them. Expensively, but it turns out piracy pays well."

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"Cool. How does the whole telepathy-empathy thing work, exactly, are you translating for her?"

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"Full telepathy I think only works with other treecats. She can sense human emotions, though, and since I'm bonded to her I can get an echo of hers. No one's managed to develop a tree-cat compatible sign language, though, so mostly we work by knowing each other and body language."

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"That sounds difficult, but I guess you've had a while to practice."

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"Yeah. Does mean it's hard for her to communicate with other humans sometimes."

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"Can she write stuff down?" It's not obvious to Margaret either way whether Edna can actually hold a pencil.

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"Some things, but most screens aren't designed for her hands, and she'd have to learn to read and write for it to be really effective. We've had some more luck with image boards."

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"Neat. But I've been asking all the questions; was there anything else you wanted to know?"

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She has some meticulously relayed questions about the danger sense from Edna, and a few more general ones about Margaret's home, which seem to be half idle curiosity.

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Margaret's danger sense is clearly most useful for personal defense, but hackable for use in ship-to-ship combat at least a bit. She's happy to satisfy idle curiosity about 21st century earth, which she clearly misses a lot.

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"Thanks for all the information. I'll send you along to someone who knows anything about spacesuits, now, how about?"

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"That sounds good to me! Thanks for--well, everything, but most recently the explanations."

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"You're quite welcome."

And she gives directions for where to find someone who works with spacesuits.

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She goes to the spacesuit person and checks whether they're available.

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They're not doing anything critical, just working on some numbers. What does she need?

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"I don't know how much you've been told, but the short version is I have magic powers and they work better depending on what I'm wearing and also mean I can modify what I'm wearing, so I'd like to try on a spacesuit and see if I can minimize how much it interferes with the magic. I won't do anything to it I can't reverse."

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"Right. Would you like a fitted or adjustable one?"

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"Whichever is cheaper, I think--I'll want to adjust it anyway to fit my wings in it, unless there's enough internal complexity inside it that I can't make parts bigger without redesigning machinery. Can I get the manual too, actually, that should tell me which bits are safe to move around."

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"Prefab fitted, then, and yeah. You got a reader already?"

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"I don't, no."

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They'll get her one of the cheaper spares and load up the user manual, then.

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The reader is pretty easy to figure out; it's clearly a more advanced version of computing devices she's seen before. She looks over the manual and the spacesuit in parallel, determining which parts have stuff more complex than "layer of such-and-such material" in them. Is the whole thing form-fitting enough to put a dress over it without looking ridiculous?

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It seems like part of the way it works actually involves being super form-fitting, and officers often wear them under uniforms. Most of the more complex stuff is in the neck, though it's slim enough she could plausibly rearrange a choker-like design over it, or just a dress with a high neck and enough fabric to conceal it. The base color is white.

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Looks like today is her lucky day then! Once she finds somewhere private to change, and actually manages to get it on (it's been years since she had to put clothes on the normal way) she can experiment with her wings. Taking them off leaves her feeling awfully off-balance and missing-something, and she doesn't trust her ability to magic up an airtight seal, so she ends up extending the fabric of the back into a pair of wing-gloves and then adding a decorative overlayer that looks more like her wings usually do. Then she expands her helmet enough to fit her horns and adds some decorations until the magic doesn't hate it. It's still a decrease on what she had, but once she has the rest of her outfit on she's confident that her danger sense and predictive sense will both work even if she's unlikely to get as many prophecies while wearing it. The whole process, experiments and all, takes about two hours, and a big chunk of that is reassembling the stuff she had to delete to get the suit on.

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The spacesuit person is still available when she's done, apparently working on cataloguing the different suit designs the ship has.

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"Hello! I got my spacesuit tailored so it's not squashing my wings or messing with my magic. It's really neat. Anything else I should know about operating it, assuming I know nothing about modern technology?"

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"The helmet's got a couple of triggers for it to snap into place - if it receives pressure loss warnings from anywhere in the ship, or if it senses pressure loss on its own. Once the helmet's in place, it's airtight, assuming nothing's damaged. It should keep internal pressure on its own. You can also manually activate it..." They show her how. "The built in filters can give you up to three days of air in optimal conditions - don't move around too much, breathe slowly - and the suit has an emergency beacon, though it's fairly weak and short range, and unless you're about to fall unconscious you shouldn't set it to run constantly..." They show her how to activate it. "Suit's resistant to tearing but not immune. Avoid explosions and sharp objects. If we're getting depressurization warnings you should be trying to get to an emergency shuttle, though - they're safer, easier for search and rescue to find, have more air and better filters, and can be maneuvered a bit."

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She memorizes all of this. "I might be able to patch a tear on the fly. Here's hoping it never comes up, though."

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"Yeah, definitely. Has anyone walked you through using the emergency shuttles?"

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"No, and that sounds important. Do you have time to do that now or are there scheduled drills or something?"

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"There's scheduled drills, but we want to make sure we have everything stable and actually understand the ship properly before we host one. I have time now for the basics, though."

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"Thank you. What do I need to know beyond 'if an alarm goes off, follow everyone else?'"

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They'll explain all the little details, including some stuff most people know like how to activate any interface - the shuttles are mostly self-guiding and otherwise designed to have intuitive user interfaces, but that's 'intuitive' for a local, and sometimes things go wrong. There's also protocols about when you should override the shuttle's internal logic on when to launch - this is mostly 'don't', since you can get into legal trouble for launching early if the system thinks someone still could've gotten on, and you could endanger everyone already on the shuttle if you launch late. The seat belt analogues also work differently than Margaret's used to...

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Margaret's used to a couple different ways user interfaces can be, and she's a quick study. When the explanation concludes she's pretty sure she can use the shuttles adequately, and also use other interfaces pretty well even if she sometimes messes up and has to backtrack.

"Thanks for teaching me all of this! As places I could have gotten lost in go, this world seems like a really comprehensible one."

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"Good! I've definitely read stories about places it'd be miserable to get dropped on - here we at least have an Earth, even if it's apparently different?"

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"Yup! An Earth, and a way to communicate while I'm still learning the language, and food humans can eat and stuff." She's actually picked up a fair amount of the local language over the past several weeks of hearing it alongside translations; she's pretty understandable if you're good with accents.

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"I'd hate being dropped somewhere they speak in scents and drink acid and eat food poisonous to humans!" they say with a laugh. "I've read science fiction like that - though so far most actual aliens have pretty human-compatible atmospheres, at least, even if communicating sometimes gets complex."

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"What kinds of aliens are there? I've only met a treecat so far."

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They summarize the ones they've heard about - the Medusans are pretty new, so a lot of people are excited about them, they've got a Bronze age culture and trilateral symmetry and they communicate with gestures so there's been Manticoran teams developing sign language holographs... (The Star Kingdom of Manticore being the closest human civilization to Medusa).

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"That's really cool." Space aliens! She could totally hang around here speculating about alien culture and diplomacy for a while, but possibly she and/or her acquaintance should be doing something more productive.

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Yeah; unfortunately, they need to get back to work soon enough.

They wish her good luck before heading back.

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"Thanks--have a great day!" And back to looking for ways to make herself useful.

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They get underway soon enough, both ships jumping into hyperspace without a problem. The journey's going to be decently long. People are still immensely relieved to be free, and it's changed the atmosphere of the ship dramatically.

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Margaret helps out here and there, improves steadily at the language, and gets to know her fellow travelers, both the new ones and the ones she couldn't freely interact with before.

One afternoon she's chatting with one of the hydroponics techs when she cuts herself off mid-sentence with, "There is a poison; tank three is unclean." 

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The tech stops short, blinking. "Um?" he asks. "Wait, was that a prophecy - "

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"Yeah, it was. And they're generally relevant to me or the person I'm talking to or both, so, uh, you should probably be on the lookout?"

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"I'll get Tank Three checked asap, yeah. Thanks for the heads up!"

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"No problem!"

 

When he takes a look at the tank, he'll spit the easy-to-miss beginnings of a nasty mold infestation. Fortunately, at this stage it's also easier than it might have been to clean it up.

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He gets this cleaned, and relays what happened (and his thanks) next time they meet. (The general opinion of - and belief in - her powers seems to have gone up, too, as the gossip spreads.)

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She's long been used to her powers being public knowledge and generally regarded as useful, so it's nice to be moving back towards that state again. Also nice to feel like she can contribute to the ship; unemployment itches. She looks forward to getting an actual analyst job again, this time tracking baddies rather than pathogens.

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She gets a couple more opportunities to contribute over the flight - space is big, travel takes a long time, and old ships like the one she's on are rife with problems that can easily edge into crises.

Still, nothing catastrophic happens, and soon enough they're being warned to prepare for a drop out of hyperspace (the protocols for this having already been covered. It's mostly 'seat belts').

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Helping is good; absence of catastrophes is better. She can sit in her chair and put on her seatbelt, though her wings are squashed up in a weird posture and kind of stick out into the aisle.

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Luckily, they thought to account for that - mostly by sticking her somewhere people are unlikely to need to rush by her, since they didn't have the time or capacity to custom make her a landing seat.

The drop's uneventful, and then they're being informed they can unbuckle their seats now - it'll be a while yet before they get clearance to dock at the space station, though.

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A custom seat would have been silly, since she won't be on this ship long-term. Once she can unbelt herself she goes looking for a window she can look at the station through without getting in anyone's way.

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This is findable! The stars continue to be really amazing from space - this is a view she hasn't gotten much of, given that hyperspace glows brightly enough they keep any windows darkened, and she hadn't had much leisure before getting rescued.

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Stargazing is the good kind of really painful. The first few minutes remind her that she's light-years and also regular years and an even more incomprehensible sort of distance from home, but once she pushes through the loneliness it instead starts feeling like it doesn't matter. There's so much universe out there: surely she'll find a place in it eventually.

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Docking takes a bit, but soon the announcement comes on that they're in. There's a distant cheer.

Of course, deboarding will take forever, especially of those people who don't want to simply vanish into the station's population.

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That's alright; she asked about where she's supposed to go but she doesn't have an appointment set up or anything. She lets the people with places to be get out first.

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Captain X comes to find her, once deboarding seems to be well on its way and going smoothly. The treecat is balanced on her shoulders.

"Everything going alright here?"

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"Yes. Anything I can help you with?"

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"I'd like to get you over to my ship - we'll be turning this one over to local authorities, and it's still another hop before we're at our final destination."

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"Sounds good. I'll go wherever you point me."

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She nods. "Do you need anything for now?"

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Breakfast, check; computer, check; she neither has nor needs a suitcase. "Nope!"

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"This way, then," she says, turning.

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That way they go!

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Captain X accompanies her onto a shuttle to the other ship.

"I'll show you around so you can get settled in? You're not the only one from the ship staying on, too, and I suspect you'll want to meet up with the other transfers at some point..."

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"Yes, that would be good. When do we leave on the next leg?"

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"We're spending today and tomorrow on refueling and restocking - day after next at the earliest, and that's if nothing goes wrong or gets hung up."

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"Okay. I might take some time to look around, then, if I won't be needed for anything."

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"Sure. Access restricted areas are pretty clearly labeled - do avoid those, they're restricted for a reason. But, otherwise, feel free to have the run of the ship."

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Margaret has no interest in wandering into a generator room and getting herself electrocuted. "Awesome!"

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"If you need anything, I'm reachable." She gives contact instructions.

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"Cool, thanks!" And off she goes exploring.

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The ship's a lot smaller than the one she was on previously, but it's also built for the comfort of its crew. There's a two story greenhouse with an elevated exercise track, and a rec room with a VR set up and an exercise panel with modular machines, and a minor projects lab she can go into with a 3D printer, and a cafeteria that actually pays any attention to aesthetics and acoustics.

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Ooh, they still have 3d printers in the cool spaceship future! She'll tinker around a bit, try to get the hang of all the cool future gadgets. And the greenhouse is more attractive than she normally considers greenhouses to be, after this long in the void.

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There's some pre-programmed things - the 3D printer has an attachment for melting stuff down, and apparently it's pretty popular to use to make game pieces as well as actual tools, given its catalog - and it can accept design files. 

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She decides against actually printing anything, since she doesn't know the policy on using up consumables, but she has a nice time reading the manuals for things and hanging around the greenhouse and eating with whoever is in the cafeteria and doesn't look like they'll mind company. And soon enough it's time to move on.

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The policy that gets relayed to her is that these materials over here are okay to use, but she should melt down whatever she's made at the end of the day, and if she wants something longer term she needs to put in a request.

The other crewmembers are mostly friendly, and even the ones that keep to themselves do so politely.

The ship moves on smoothly - it's faster than the old ship, too, able to get higher in hyperspace. The Captain stays busy until they've been in hyperspace for two full days, when her schedule clears enough she can afford to spend more time among her crewmembers - especially making sure Margaret gets acclimated well.

Then, soon enough, they arrive at their destination.

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Margaret acclimates just fine. She doesn't make any things she wants to keep, or any friends she wants to keep in touch with, but she has a pleasant time. Her feelings about becoming a spy settle from mostly nervousness to mostly determination, though the nervousness definitely doesn't go away entirely. Overall, it's a relief when they arrive and at least this stage of waiting is over.

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Captain X gets everything settled when they arrive, then comes to find her.

"You ready?" she asks.

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"Ready as I'll ever be," she says steadily, repairing a slightly stretched-out bit of lace where she was fidgeting with her sleeve.

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"This way, then," she says, heading for the ship's exit.

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Off she goes. Have they stopped at a planet this time, or another station?

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A station, looks like - they'll be taking a shuttle down to the actual surface.

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Yeah, this ship probably isn't built to be able to land. With shuttles so available, it makes a lot of sense to build your big ships in orbit and not worry about designing them for aerodynamics.

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Captain X comes to sit by her on the ride down. "How's your journey been?"

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"Pretty good! I'm finally starting to feel like I know how this world works and less like a lost tourist."

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"That's a good first step. We might want to see if we can't get your education caught up, too - I bet our grade schools teach different things. At least get you grounded in history some..."

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"History and also science, my knowledge of physics comes from when they thought FTL was impossible. Are there online classes I should be taking?" She's done this world's equivalent of wiki-walking on a number of topics, but nothing really systematic; it's been too long since she was in school.

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"I should be able to find ones for you, yeah, and it'd be helpful for analyzing dangers and such to know more about our world."

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Nod. "And presumably I'll need to learn a bunch of specialist stuff too."

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"Generally, yes, though there's different levels you'd be able to help at, pretty much? I'd expect us to find a use for you pretty early in the educational modules."

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"I definitely want to start being useful as soon as possible."

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"Fortunately, we can accommodate that."

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Margaret smiles and peers out the window, watching the planet approach and wondering how much longer it will take them to get down.

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The descent is slow and controlled enough it might take them another half an hour at least.

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She can watch the planet get bigger out her window, then. How densely populated does it look to be? She knows that with the profusion of earthlike planets out there, people haven't felt the need to crowd everywhere to the standards of her former home before spreading farther.

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It isn't entirely uninterrupted mountains and plains, but it's not the tight network of lights Earth is from space or a plane. There's a few cities, connected to each other by corridors, with some sprawl out from the planetary surface and more than a few freight elevators going into space - which seem a better indication of population than lights. Either they don't like lighting their cities up at night or have figured out ways to avoid light pollution from doing that.

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That's pretty cool! She has really good night vision with her shiny slit-pupilled eyes, so even if they've decided a clear view of the stars is more important than having streetlights she shouldn't be especially inconvenienced. And she can see where they'd conclude that; the stars as seen from a spaceship are really something.

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They apparently rate priority consideration for landing; their shuttle docks in a more private bay than the main spaceport looks to be.

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Nifty! Does she have an appointment somewhere immediately, or should she be figuring out where she's going to sleep tonight?

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"No appointments, but I should be able to get you accommodations, at a hotel even if nothing else."

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"What is the whole getting-paid and paying-for-hotel-room situation going to be like?" She never actually got formal offer or onboarding paperwork and isn't sure if either of "being in an alternate future" or "being a spy" means she isn't going to get any; either way it's a far cry from her old job.

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"We'll need to set you up with an identity here and then a credit account - unfortunately I couldn't do those from the ship. After we get you your identifications, we'll sign you up officially. We'll cover the hotel room until we get you a forward on your salary."

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"That makes sense. Is the shapeshifting going to complicate that? I basically always look like this, but back home there was extra paperwork about it."

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"Shapeshifting's not really known here. If you want to have separate faces, I can get you separate identities for them?"

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"No, I only want the one face and the one identity, I meant I'm worried the government won't want to give a shapeshifter a photo ID at all."

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"There's not actually a policy on it - oh, and we also don't use photo IDs. They're not all that secure."

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"That makes sense. Even without magical girls, image-editing software was already pretty good at my world's tech level."

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"Biometrics aren't entirely immune to faking, unfortunately, but they're a bit better for high security."

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"True. Am I going to need to have fingerprints, or can they use my iris or something?"

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"Iris should work."

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"Oh good, that's more convenient photographing my fingerprints so I could make them the same every time I needed them."

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"Yeah. I imagine that'd be a really big pain."

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"Yeah. Not to mention making a bit of a farce out of the whole thing." How much farther before they reach the ground?

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Not far at all.

It's been a long trip, though.

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It has been! Margaret gets her IDs set up, makes sure she knows where she needs to be the next morning, makes a beeline for her hotel, and collapses into bed, space-jetlagged.