The world faded into existence very slowly through my blurry eyes.
When the hell had I passed out?
I remembered the R&D women who came to my room. I remembered Kaden and how he'd been trying to do something to get... I wasn't really sure what his game was.
I remembered the big glass front door.
I remembered the space jet, in all of its marvelous absurdity.
But I couldn't remember anything after that. I could feel a disappointed frown forming on my face.
Maybe I'd remember later.
I began looking around. The room I'd found myself in looked like an improvised medical ward, looking at the cots and that large stash of medical supplies on the far wall. I could see people in a few of the cots.
"Finally awake," a voice said from my left, "That's good. We've had you in and out of the ice bath already."
"For my fever," I said, "That makes sense." She moved in front of me. She was beautiful. Just as beautiful as Tamaki or Davis. Her eyes had an intense purple glow to them. Her hair was a pretty chocolate color. Her lips were a pretty cherry color. Her cheeks were perfectly curved.
"Medical Officer Manafed," she said, pointing to herself, "and your new designation is Tactical Officer Young."
"Please," I said, "call me Talon."
"Then you can call me Lucere or Lucy," she replied, "whichever you prefer."
"You're beautiful, Lucere," I said, still meeting her eyes.
"And you're running a hot enough fever that you're out of your mind," she replied, giggling, her smile infectious.
"That doesn't change facts," I said. Where did that come from? The anxiety was there, but subdued. "Did you drug me?"
"Well, you were tossing and turning in your sleep, so I gave you an anti-anxiety pill, and a mild sedative so you'd end up in deep sleep." She explained it like it was so simple and easy. "You should still feel the effects of the anti-anxiety, but the sedative left your system hours ago."
"So I'd be really forward if it weren't for anxiety?" I asked.
"Well, you are also experiencing a very high fever," she replied, "You probably didn't notice because we're running a bio-compatible cryofluid through your veins."
"So you're chilling me using subzero fake blood?" I asked, "What's my temperature without it?"
"Your temperature without the cryofluid? Oh that's a bit of a hard question," she replied, "My best guess would be somewhere around 300, maybe 350."
"Numbers that big, I suppose it doesn't really matter what measurement system it is," I said, immediately covering my mouth when I remembered Kelvin existed.
"Celsius." She answered the implicit question with a smirk.
"Anyway, what's going on?" I asked.
"You met our Pale Goddess," she replied, "meeting Her causes certain changes to happen. Your fever is caused by your body changing."
"And she's what, an actual god?" I asked, scoffing at the thought.
"Yes," she replied, "She grants us certain magics."
"Magics?" My questions shrunk in the name of unrelenting bandwidth.
"Yes," she replied again, putting her hand up in front of me, "Like this." Her hand started glowing a bright purple light. "I can heal almost any wound with that." I knew I must have been staring because the glow in her eyes brightened.
"Is that why I can see light in your eyes?" I asked.
She gave me an odd look. "No, that's all you. You're able to see the magic in us. That's new."
"New?" I asked, "As in you haven't seen it before?"
"Yes, new as in we haven't got it in our catalog of magics," she replied, "That's neat."
"So I'm what then, now?" I asked, "a witch?"
"We're mages," she said, "not witches."
"Is there a difference?" I asked.
She squinted at me with a frown on her face.
"No, no, don't look at me like that."
"Mages do magic," she replied, her frown resolving to something decidedly less pained, "Witches are just nurses with a stupid costume."
"Oh," I said, "sorry to have insulted you like that."
"It's fine," she said, "We have to get you into virtual now, so you don't feel a lot of pain when your body starts changing. We'll also train you as best we can for your new role as our Tactical Officer."
"And does the Tactical Officer have magic?" I asked, a silly smile on my face.
"Does the Tactical Officer embrace the power of the feminine?" she asked, a serious look on her face.
"I'm not even sure what that means," I replied, "but we can assume no for the time being."
"Then no," she giggled, "Other gods give in accordance with their domains, but the Pale Goddess' domains are femininity, motherhood, womanhood, lesbianism, and the likes."
"You're telling me she's the goddess of lesbians?" I asked, "Who is she, Sappho reincarnated?"
Lucere looked at me funny. "I think I'll assume 'maybe' for the time being."
"Okay," I said, drawing the word out, "What's it gonna take to get me in virtual?"
"You have two options," she said, jumping right into business, "we can put you in using the neural crown, which is completely non-invasive, or I can put you back under and give you a neural implant. What's your pick?"
"Right," I replied, a little overwhelmed. Neural implants are still just science fiction. "Lets go with the crown for now, and we'll see about the implant later."
"Are you sure?" she asked, "it comes with a snazzy optical implant for user interfacing."
"Yeah," I said, "I'm sure."
"Okay then, cutie, lets get you ready for go," Lucere said with a smile, "We'll be moving you into a permanent ice bath once you're in virtual."
Shit. She'd called me a cutie.
I could feel my face getting red.
"Right," I said, "Let's get it done."
"I'm going to move closer now and fit the crown over your head," she said, "Don't bite."
As she moved closer to me, I started talking, maybe a bit too fast. "So I'm gonna guess how this thing works. It uses electromagnetic fields to induce tiny pinpoint electrical signals within certain parts of my brain."
"Sort of," she said, "it doesn't use EMF, but if you want all the details on that, you should talk to our resident tech mage."
"I may just have to," I replied. She'd been messing with something I couldn't quite see, just above my head.
"Use your limited ability to move your head and let me slip this over you," she instructed, holding a stretchy fabric band. As I pushed my head forward and up slightly, she slipped the band over my head. "Good, now think happy thoughts while I put you in the environment."
I thought about her, in front of me. Lucere's arms curled around me. Her lips meeting mine. I couldn't tell you why I thought about her. I'd never really thought about women like that, never really wanted to kiss anyone before. Thinking about it made me feel an odd warmth through my chest.
Maybe it was just the fever. Before I could think on it anymore, the crown got a little warm around my head. Then the world dripped away in large liquidy globules. Everything I could see simply melted away.
I don't know when I'd begun screaming, but it stopped when I felt my body stretch. It felt roughly like I'd expected being sucked into a black hole would have, except far worse: I was actually experiencing it.
The feeling got worse and worse, like a pressure building up. It almost became unbearable. Almost.
Then I heard a popping noise and dropped very lightly into a grassy environment at the top of a hill with what looked like an endless void surrounding it.
"Your heart rate spiked as you were coming in," Lucere said from beside me.
I jumped, startled. She wasn't there just a second ago.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"You didn't warn me that it would do that," I said. My voice sounded hoarse.
"I told you to think about happy thoughts," she stated as if that was some excuse, "Happy thoughts prevent the black hole from eating you between environments."
"Oh, and I suppose that is supposed to mean something to me!" I shouted. I didn't mean to shout. I hated yelling. She just stared at me.
"Yeah," she said, "It's supposed to mean, 'think about times you were happy.'"
"Lucy," I heard a familiar voice say, "what the hell are you doing yelling at officer Young?"
"He accidentally experienced the black hole, Ai." said Lucere, the familiar voice coming into view. Tamaki. She was wearing a robe now. It was colorfully decorated and reminded me of the Renaissance festival, in how old, yet new, it looked.
"Getting ready for a seance?" I asked, completely baffled by the outfit.
"No," she replied, little emotion coming through her voice, "I'm getting ready for the welcoming ceremony."
"Welcoming what?" I asked, confused.
"You, dummy," Lucere laughed.
"Oh." I laughed.
"I see you two made a bit of a connection," Tamaki said, "Lucy I thought you only got kicks out of women."
"Commander," Lucere said, feigning shock, "Don't you know that love is love?"
"Yeah yeah," Tamaki giggled, "back in line soldier."
Lucere gave an exaggerated salute, bowed deeply, and pranced off to some unseen spot.
"Forgive our medical officer," Tamaki said, "for her lame jokes and her impeccably bad timing. And me, for making fun of her at your expense."
"No need for that," I replied, giving a salute almost as exaggerated as Lucere's, "Commander."
Tamaki Laughed. "We won't have any issues with chain of command from you, will we?" Her question rang of obvious sarcasm. She started walking, but stopped when she noticed I wasn't following. She beckoned me over. I sighed and started walking, following behind her while keeping a distance of a few paces.
After a few-minute walk through total nothingness, only seeing Tamaki in front of me, trees started appearing. We walked through a dense wooded area for another few minutes before we came to a clearing. Once in the clearing, I saw clearly a ring of logs with hooded figures sitting on them.
I counted five such figures. With Tamaki and I we would be seven in total.
"Come on," Tamaki laughed, "you don't need to be scared of women in hooded robes."
"And yet," I said, "I am. Maybe something to do with the whole magic thing."
"They won't attack you," she said, "unless of course you attack them first."
"I have no ill intentions," I stated, "but I'm still worried."
"Don't be." She laughed again.
As we approached, each of the mages stood up, their black robes still reaching the ground, their hoods large enough to obscure their faces.
I mean, we're talking about literal mages wearing mage robes and doing some sort of mage thing.
Did I get whisked away into a cult?
Should I be worried?
"Center of the circle," Tamaki giggled, "Facing me. On your knees, but make yourself comfortable, because you'll be sitting like that for a bit."
I sat myself in the circle, on my knees. For comfort, I rested on my feet and placed my hands on my thighs.
I heard a few hums of excitement from the mages around me.
"Now," Tamaki said, taking point in front of the group, "for the first time among us, we have a man. Unprecedented since the discovery of magic nearly seventy years ago. Mages are a rarity, as we all know, and our Goddess has a penchant for making them."
"May I ask questions?" I asked before she could continue.
"You may," Tamaki replied, "but keep in mind, we are slightly pressed for time. Our officers are quite busy, especially our medical officer."
"Right," I said, giggling slightly, "when was magic first discovered?"
"When the first mage was born on this campus," she replied, "in our medical wing, the same one your body is in now, actually. In 2091, August third. The medical staff had no clue what was wrong with her. When she woke up in a new body nearly a month later, the medical team having used ice baths to cool her, she did her best to figure out what happened."
"Of course," Lucere cut in, "she went in much like your body is now."
"A man?" I asked.
"Probably not," Lucere replied, "but she was incorrectly labeled a boy at birth. We aren't here to judge. That's for the Pale Goddess, and we've all already been deemed worthy in Her eyes."
Fuck, was that what was going to happen to me? They must have seen my anxiety spike, because they all stopped making noise. I was starting to hyperventilate.
I fell backwards and felt my chest heave as my body tried its hardest to get air in me.
I'd never wished I were a woman. It was ridiculous.
I guess I'd have to think on that later. Focusing on my breathing, I managed to calm down.
Could I even pass out from lack of oxygen in virtual?
"Are you okay?" Tamaki asked, kneeling down in front of me. When did she get in front of me? I shook my head, not trusting my voice. "Alright ladies," she said, "Group hug time. You can go back to your duties after."
The six mages around me all huddled in, wrapping their arms around me, squeezing in. I felt like I was being enveloped in a heavy weighted blanket, something Eastern Hills hadn't let me keep when I moved into the campus. It was too big a safety risk, they'd said.
After a little bit, each of the mages unwrapped their arms and disappeared. Lucere looked me in the eyes, her hood back, and kissed my forehead. "You'll make it through this," she whispered in my ear before returning to her duties outside of virtual.
Eventually, Tamaki and I were the only ones left sitting in the clearing.
"Come on," she said, offering her hand, "we've got a lot to talk about."