Minka struggles with the news that she wasn't able to get a license.
Rosa and Ayaka's bedroom was small and cozy, but the air in it was oddly stifling. Rosa didn't seem happy, and the door was closed and the two of them were alone.
"Look, if you're going to send me back to that prison, just say it," Minka said, her guard up.
"I'm not." Rosa patted a spot on the bed beside her. "But I do have bad news."
"Just tell me already!" Minka said. She refused to sit. "What? Did I fail a test or something?"
"No, nothing of the sort. I want you to know right now that this isn't your fault." Rosa's eyes trapped Minka's as soon as they met. "Sit down, Minka."
Minka sat down. It was surprisingly hard to resist Rosa at times. "O... okay."
"No one can argue that you've been an asset to this ship, this team, and our first mission. I promise you, what you're doing is valuable to us, and we're happy to have you with us."
"But." Minka felt a knot forming in her stomach, familiar from several interviews she'd conducted at the Rehabilitation Center. "There's always a but when people use that voice."
"But I applied for you and the others to get your first licenses. I even pulled some strings for you since I knew that morale was down after that first mission. And I'm sorry to say that even with all my influence, I wasn't able to secure a license for you." Rosa's voice was steady throughout, but as she finished talking, her arm went around Minka's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Minka."
"Oh, yeah, don't give it to the kid from the rehab center. She's crazy, and still half a pirate, probably," Minka said, putting on a mocking tone to prevent herself from wanting to cry.
"I can't discuss the reasons for your rejection, but I can promise you that they have nothing to do with the caliber of your character or your piloting skill."
"I'm right, aren't I? That's why." She sighed out a forceful breath. "It's not fair. And the other two got their licenses, didn't they?"
"They did. I wanted you to know this now so that you wouldn't be surprised when I tell the others." Rosa's grip tightened, and Minka fell against her side. A splash of hot liquid hit Rosa's upper arm where Minka's face had landed, despite Minka's best efforts to hold it back. Rosa didn't flinch. "Although I can't reapply on your behalf for another mission or two yet, I want you to know that I'll be doing everything I can to make sure you can get a license in good time."
"Sure, whatever, it doesn't matter." Minka's voice trembled. "I'm not going to have to go back? But I thought this was-"
"Yes, as originally conceived, this was a trial basis unless you were able to get a license. But your doctor and I have been talking and we've agreed that we can move the deadline out a little further." Rosa patted Minka's shoulder. Her hand was so strong... she could do anything. But Minka...
"Can I go to my room?" Minka asked numbly. "I want to talk to my doctor."
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry it happened this way, Minka." Rosa's head lifted to watch her go, but Minka turned her back so she wouldn't have to feel Rosa's eyes on her.
"Honestly, I wouldn't view this as a setback at all," Dr. Lindbeck's hologram said. "You convinced your captain that it was worth applying for a new license for you. Just because you didn't get one doesn't mean you failed."
"Whatever," Minka muttered under her breath.
Dr. Lindbeck's lips twisted upward in a sympathetic, sad smile. "Take a little while to cry over it, and then get back to creating. You told me that no one would take you to begin with, and now look at you. That after just one mission your captain was convinced of your skill is proof enough that you're doing great, and it was enough to convince the board that keeping you here was good for you."
"You always look on the bright side."
"Yes. One of us should."
Minka scowled and looked away.
"Mm, I think that's all the time I have right now. Try not to close yourself off too much. Helping others makes you feel good too, remember? Remember that you can call me any time if you need me. Keep up the good work, Minka."
The hologram disappeared, but Minka's scowl remained. What was she supposed to do now? She'd just been rejected for the only thing she wanted... it's like the Doc had given her the ability to feel things and want things just to hurt her.
She twisted around in her bed, feeling around for the omninet port beside it. Pressing two fingers into the base of her palm, she shot the cable in her cybernetic hand into it, and her vision went white.
The bulletin board she'd set up had attracted a few visitors who had attached part designs to share. Most of them were very slightly modded GMS parts, but a few looked more promising. She pasted them into her virtual notebook, copying their data into her real-life datapad.
Wait... there was one hidden under another post. That was odd. But it had a post number and everything...
She looked around. No one but her was accessing this area of the omninet. She was alone.
She grabbed it off its pin - a copy coming free into her hands - and turned it over. An encrypted message? Hey, Bee.
Yes? The NHP appeared beside her. Normally, the communicator she spoke through was a drone which looked like a handheld replica of the real-life mech that her casket was actually housed in. In the mech, she was a translucent hologram. But here, in the dream of the omninet, she was a solid 6-foot-tall girl with paper-thin glass bee wings and goggles that reminded the viewer of a bee's eyes, as well as antennae. As real-looking as Minka herself. What do you need, Minka?
Can you get me the encryption cutter I wrote off my account?
One moment, please. Bee vanished, then reappeared a moment later with something like a knife in her hand. She offered Minka the grip, the blade not cutting into her hand despite that. I will remind you that it is potentially dangerous to hack publicly-owned systems.
I'm not hacking the system, I'm just hacking this file someone uploaded. They uploaded it to my thread, so they were sending it to me, weren't they?
I suppose you're right, Bee said, stepping back. Is that all?
Yeah, that's all for now. Thanks, Bee.
The NHP didn't answer before vanishing.
Minka turned the message over in her hands. Holding the encryption cutter modified the AR system in her cybernetic hand to let her see the encryption as a package wrapped in a messy ball of string several layers thick. She would need to figure out the right strings to cut to make the whole thing fall apart.
And sometimes, she did like playing that game, but right now, her curiosity was killing her. She tapped the button on the center of the grip, causing the cutter blade to begin vibrating. String after string was sliced through easily. "Not you, not you, not you..."
A louder-than-normal snap alerted her that she'd broken the first layer of encryption. She squinted. "You're a toughie, aren't you!"
Snap. Snap. Snap.
The package fell open as the last strings faded into nothing. The encryption cutter copy Bee had given her wasn't necessary anymore, so she tapped the button on the reverse side of the grip to make it shred itself without a trace. And then she greedily reached inside, pulling it out. Some kind of program-
Ayaka's voice pierced through the AR world. "Minka! Come help with dessert!"
Damn it, right when I was going to get a good look at it... The Doc's comment about helping others making her feel good replayed in her mind, making her feel guilty for even considering blowing her off. Her curiosity would have to be satisfied knowing it was at least some kind of executable code. "Okay, let's see what we've got here... later."
She slapped it into her datapad and lifted her eyes up, the cue for the AR program to end.
"Careful, Minka, that cake is a little close to the edge," Ayaka said. The cat-eared woman bustled around the kitchen, grabbing some candles and snapping her finger atop them to "light" the holographic flames that burned on top of them. She leaned over the cake, pushing the candles in. "It's nice of you to help me bake, Minka!" Ayaka slapped Minka on the back gleefully. "Gosh, how long has it been since we've had a celebration like this."
"Yeah... Doctor's orders!" Minka tried to smile, but the constant reminder of her own lack of license made her heart sink. Maybe this isn't what the Doc meant by helping out making her feel better. She really wanted to be looking at the new files in her datapad right now...
"Minka, could you get the cake cutter from up there?" Ayaka asked, distractedly checking on her cookies.
Minka looked up. It was on the middle shelf in the upper cabinet - high, but not so high she couldn't reach it on tiptoe.
She put her hand on the counter for support and leaned up, stretching, her fingers just barely not close enough... a little more lean, a little higher on tiptoe, and-
"Minka, watch-" was all the warning she had before the cake dish flipped its contents into her chest. Sweet yellow frosting left a trail down her front, smeared with the icing that had once said "CONGRATULATIONS!". Sugary discs with pretty designs on them were now caught in her shirt, further obscuring its "My Other Computer Could Step On You" text and image of an Everest-class mech.
"Does your shirt say 'Mother, Step On'?" Rosa asked, coming to a stop when she realized no one was hurt.
Minka's face was beet red. Chunks of cake were now all over her shoes.
"Well, everyone, I'm sorry to say that Minka is going to be your cake tonight," Ayaka called, leaning over into the dining area to peer at the already-seated Evi and Talya. She pulled Minka into view, pointing. "Look, she's even got the candles and everything."
Minka hadn't even noticed that some of the candles had gotten stuck in the frosting and were still lit.
"Oooh! I'll take that cake," Evi said, making a big show of licking her lips.
Talya raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Were you expecting me to help cut this cake? Sorry, but in this case, I think I'd prefer all or nothing."
"No one's cutting anything," Rosa said, moving into the dining area. "Ayaka made cookies as well, and we can all have those."
"Don't worry, I've done worse," Ayaka murmured into Minka's ear. The poor girl was still too paralyzed by shame to move. "Listen, we'll get you a shower and we'll eat the cookies and everything will be fine. Okay?"
"Nnn..." Everything around this was going wrong. Everything. She was really cursed...
After the shower, she stayed in her room. Despite Rosa's offers, she was too embarrassed and too upset to congratulate anyone about anything.
She connected to the omninet port again. It was time to take a look at the file she'd decrypted earlier.
Some kind of a... hacking program? It had the requisite shape and ports to be installed in a mech. Definitely some sort of mech system, compatible with the standard API...
Wait, there was something else underneath it. This was a blueprint. When she extended her hand over its surface, she could see what it was. Some kind of launcher... and, looking closely, it had no fire trigger.
Huh? No fire trigger?
Well, she may not be able to use these things without a license for them, but she could try them out in sim. She called up a scale model of the Bumble 0xB, opening the virtual hatch to its system segment. The hacking program fit in nicely once she removed the useless controls from the honey chamber she had already uninstalled. And if she made the second pair of hands purely cosmetic, then there would be room to install the command module from the launcher... a silvery cord connected it to the actual gun part.
This could perhaps go in the forehead of the Bumble... She pulled back the plating and settled the gun into it, wrapping it back up in plating and smoothing it over.
Yeah... that looked good.
She replayed the combat simulation from her last fight in VR, with the team.
Fascinating. The launcher automatically triggered when she was locked on. No, when anyone was locked on.
That was what the system was for. Hooking into the mech's sensors...
"Well, you're doing better than the previous owner. Never thought of the bumble bee design for that piece of gear..."
Minka jumped three feet into the air. A girl with cornflower-blue hair and a shockingly pink streak was crouched in front of her, admiring the model of the Bumble 0xB.
In a panic, she fled the AR environment, returning to the real world.
But there the girl was, sitting on the bed next to her. She yelped, scrambling back. "H... How did you get in my room?"
The blue-haired girl looked up at her. From this close, Minka could see that her eyes were two different colors - a bright blue, and a golden amber - the latter of which was clearly artificial. It seemed to move independent of her natural eye, which made a shiver run up Minka's spine. Her midriff-baring black shirt hung off one shoulder, revealing the strap beneath, and a thin black collar marked her neck.
"I'm not in your room, you silly girl. I'm in your head."
Minka stared at her cybernetic wrist as if it had the answers.
"Your firewalling efforts were really cute, though. Good idea when you're using subjectivity enhancement like that." The girl leaned back against the head of the bed, one eye closed in a playful wink. "Prevents people like me from getting in."
Or at least it's supposed to! Minka hissed in her mind.
"I'm surprised, though. That file was encrypted for someone twice your age." The intruder scanned over Minka, the artificial eye feeling like it saw right through her. "I didn't think that the person who stole it was such a light snack."
Virtual or not, Minka was not taking chances. Bee's communicator was sitting on her nightstand, charging. Minka signaled frantically with the hand away from the new girl, hoping Bee would see it and rescue her. "M-Me? I didn't... steal it exactly, in-information wants to be free... or something..."
"True, but we kinda try to keep our weapon permissions limited. The only way one frees up is when its previous owner... can't use it anymore." The intruder's hand went to her stomach and brushed it casually, her fingers going to the place where her shirt ended and her bare belly was exposed.
It was an incredibly meaningful gesture. Minka's mouth went completely dry. She swallowed hard, staring openly at the girl's stomach as her hand brushed over it.
"So, as you can imagine, the person that was supposed to go to is pretty pissed."
Minka was still staring. She raised a trembling hand to point at the newcomer. "A... A... Ah..... I-It wasn't you who was supposed to get it... was it?"
The intruder gave a tiny chuckle, shifting both hands behind her head. "Heh, of course not. The girl who was supposed to get it hasn't even figured out who stole it yet, and..." She side-eyed Minka. "Well, since I found you so easily, maybe we were wrong about her deserving it."
Minka blew out an uneasy breath. Out of the corner of her eye she could see that Bee was completely frozen in place. Her processor must have been stopped. She licked her lips. "Are you here to take it back...?"
"Oh, sweetie." The stranger smiled. "I'm not even physically in the room with you right now. I'm just scoping out who our tech went to."
"Ah..." Minka nodded uneasily. "But this other girl... she'll be looking for me...? Unless... Unless I find her first..."
The stranger shrugged. "I would if I was her, but... Like I said, she seems to be running around blind trying to find you. Of course if you did find her first and... well," she reached across the distance between them and stroked Minka's tummy. "Maybe you'd finally get a chest worth talking about."
Over the stranger's grin, Minka couldn't help but feel a sense of alarm. She could feel those fingers on her stomach as if their owner really were in the room. Her stomach even twitched reflexively at the ticklish touch.
She took a deep, steadying breath. Was this a dream? Was the girl telling the truth, and somehow hijacking her subjectivity enhancement implants? Or... was she really here, in the room?
The last possibility was alarming.
Minka curled her arms around her chest protectively. "My chest is fine! I know where I found this and what settings I used on my encryption cutter. I'll find her. You'll see."
"You sure about that?" the girl asked, pulling out a thin tablet with a candid photo of Minka in the shower. "Seems pretty lacking to me..."
Minka stared at the picture in disbelief.
"Well, if you say you can find her that probably won't be a problem much longer." The stranger tossed the tablet into Minka's lap. Again, it felt so real...
Minka was extremely unnerved. She wanted this girl out of her head. "Whatever! Sure, you per-"
Something occurred to her, and she picked up the tablet. This photo was from just a few moments before, when she was showering off the mess... some icing was still visible on her stomach. "How... How did you get this?" All color drained from her face, leaving her pale as a sheet. "I don't... keep cameras in the bathroom. And Bee is always sitting on her charger when I'm taking a shower. Where did you get this from?"
The girl took the tablet from Minka again. "Well, I needed something to show the other Inner Circle members who it was stealing from our members." She turned the tablet over in her hands, admiring the photo. "I figured using something personal was important."
Shame, fear, and uncertainty chased each other in broad circles around Minka's brain. She didn't know what to do. Someone breaking into her mind? Some stranger coming after her?
"I... I should tell Rosa about this." That was all she could think of.
"Sure, go ahead." The girl was back to reclining with her hands behind her head. "I'm sure she'll be happy to hear that such an exclusive organization is giving you a trial run," she said, unconcerned.
Happiness from Rosa wasn't exactly what Minka was hoping for. Rather, she found herself realizing that she wanted Rosa to protect her from the girl who's coming for her...
... But she brought this on herself, didn't she...
"Y... Yeah, well, good!" she snapped back, trying to mask the increasing tremors in her voice.
The intruder shook her head. "Don't worry so much. I'm not a voyeur. My main kinks are more... vampires and food play."
Was this girl reading her mind? "V... Vampires? Food... play...?" She had to pretend like she didn't know exactly what these were. The former having been one of the ways she sated her... hunger... before she was able to get into the vore archives. And the latter... the latter having been all she could think about since the cake incident.
"Oho, the 'cake incident'? My my, are you going to tell me about that or do I have to dive in deeper and pull it out myself~?"
"You answer my question first!" But Minka's mind nonetheless gleefully replayed the night's events for her - and for her unwanted guest.
A guest who seemed quite satisfied with the memories. "Mmmm, oh that is delicious. I don't know how they didn't just eat you up right there."
A chill ran up Minka's spine at that line. Oh, what it would have been if they had...
"Definitely saving that memory for tonight - I'll be sure to send you something nice over as repayment."
"S-Saving...?" At this point, shame was definitely winning the race. But also, there was a part of her that was really enjoying all this shame and fear that's going on, and even as she was humiliated by the idea that this girl was going to watch her almost get eaten, she was... somehow excited by the thought that she wanted to watch? Was she becoming an exhibitionist? Or... worse... Was she going back to her old habits?
She looked over at Bee. Surely if her processor was stopped, she couldn't be reporting this back to the Doc...
"Pfft, don't worry about it, kid," the woman said, sitting back down on the bed. "Everyone from the inner circle is a huge pervert. Belle is a way worse exhibitionist. Hell, she once plastered her nudes over the biggest news site in the galaxy for kicks."
The incident sounded familiar. Last Minka heard, the hacker who did it - and the woman depicted - were never identified. She didn't see the pictures, though, only heard about it after the fact. "Wait... She did that to herself? She posted her own nudes?"
"Yep yep. She is very confident in herself."
Minka couldn't help feeling a stab of regret that she didn't get to see why Belle is so confident in herself... And her mind started to wander towards whether that confidence extended to hunger, but she quickly shut it down. "So what you're saying is... Because I'm a pervert, I'll fit in there...?"
The intruder held up a finger. "If you apply yourself enough that we let you in beyond just using a bit of our tech, then yes~ I don't think any of us have a kink for being someone else's meal, so you'll help... round us out," she joked, very proud of her pun.
Minka covered her face, turning bright red. She wanted to deny it, but at this point, it was clear that this girl would know much better... "I'll... I'll do my best, okay?"
"Atta girl," the intruder said, patting Minka's head.
When Minka uncovered her eyes, the newcomer was just gone. Bee whirred to life. "I'm sorry, Minka, but my process was temporarily halted due to processor contention on the Bumble."
"Y... yeah..." Minka said, still sorting through what was just said. What organization did this girl represent, anyway? She should have asked. "That's fine, Bee..."
"By the way, would you like to save the changes you have made to the Bumble 0xB? License check verification, physical consistency verification, and size verification all passed."
"Yeah, sure," Minka said distractedly. "Call it... Bumble 0xB3E. Cause it's the third-"
She cut herself off. "Wait, did you say license check verification passed?"
"Yes. A rank 1 license for HORUS Goblin technology is required to print this mech. Pilot Minka Riekert possesses the HORUS Goblin license at rank 1."
A rap on the door got Minka's attention. "Minka, can I come in?" Rosa's voice.
"Y-Yes!" Minka didn't really want to talk about the cake incident right now. But she opened the door anyway.
It took half an hour, but Minka finally got the story out.
"I see..." Rosa looked troubled. "So you got these parts from a bulletin board posting you made?"
"Yeah. Look." Minka took out a tablet from her bedside and offered it to Rosa. "It's right... wait..."
The encrypted file was not there. And yet, there was no sign of a deleted post, either.
"I... I found it in AR," Minka stammered, pressing her glove to the wall. "I'll be right back. I'll get you a picture."
But the bulletin board in AR didn't have the file either. And there was no residue showing that a file was deleted, either.
"Minka, I trust you," Rosa said softly. "Though perhaps you're confusing the bulletin boards? Whatever the case... I can confirm that just a few minutes before I came into your room, I got a strange mail with nothing but a new personnel file for you on it. And... it seems that HORUS has seen fit to give you one of their licenses. Which means... you're officially a licensed pilot."
Minka felt more confused than triumphant. "I.... I am?"
"Now, I don't know what's going on. To be honest, I'm worried about you. But Ayaka and I and the others, we're happy to have you as part of the team. And I'm proud of you. One way or another, it seems you passed a test to earn a new license."
I'm proud of you. The words echoed in Minka's head forever. "Th... thank you..."
"It seems there's not much we can do about this woman who's searching for you for now. But I'll keep an eye out, and let the others know to do the same." Rosa smiled warmly. "Good job, Minka. Get some rest tonight. We have a new mission coming up, after all!"