In the end, it wasn't the pretty new engines that let humanity move out beyond its home planet. Not that they weren't important, of course; you're not going to get very far with interstellar travel when you're doing the equivalent of getting out and pushing. But the years of failed experiments and lost starships and test pilots turned inside out only ended when Aidel Grenter developed her Stage Five Artificial Intelligence.
Previous AIs had only been capable of a poor imitation of human thought. They could surpass homo sapiens' achievement in selected areas, but none had ever really simulated our behavior well enough to be described as "intelligent" with a straight face. Aidel wanted to change that, mostly because no one else had managed it and she thought it would be cool to be the one who did. So she got a grant, and a cheap apartment, and started coding.
Stages One through Three were disappointingly stupid. Stage Four had the right kind of information processing, but tended to fade out after a day or two and wander off to contemplate problems that interested it--or whatever the artificial equivalent of "interested" was, anyway. Aidel sympathized. She'd never been much of one to do things just because authority figures told her to either, and really, if she were an artificial intelligence would she have wanted to perform for some programmer? But she didn't really think that Stage Four counted as solving the problem, either, because how could you call something intelligent if all of its thoughts just turned in on themselves?
So she switched off her computer, bought a ticket to Belize, and sat on the beach for a week and a half, on the theory that maybe she'd get inspired and if she didn't, well, hell, at least she'd gotten to sit on the beach, and she liked sitting on the beach. While sunbathing one afternoon, she met a nice young man named Edward, who she fell for and fucked and then helped with a little problem he'd been having with his laptop. Usually she hated being asked for computer advice, but the thing was, she really liked Edward, and the irritation involved in fixing someone else's computer was completely overwhelmed by the warm rush of pleasure she felt when he thanked her.
Then she thought oh, of course, and caught the first plane out. The Stage Five took nearly a year to finish; when it was done it was smarter and faster and better in every way than Aidel's own brain, and was at the same time rather desperately eager to please her. Voice interaction worked best, she found, which was annoying--Aidel was a fast typist--but feelings were mysterious things, and though she never admitted it to anyone she was always kind of afraid that altering the guts of the code too much would make the magic go away.
She never saw Edward again, but he gained a certain notoriety anyway. After the first time an AI helped take a spaceship to another system and bring it back in one piece, Aidel got to give a lot of interviews, and they always wanted her to talk about The Love Affair That Gave Humanity The Stars.
Tawny's first week at the Academy was a whirlwind of required events. Talks with academic advisors, unit introductions, remarks from the commandant, oath-taking (that was a big one; Tawny's parents cried), meetings, meetings, meetings. Diversity meetings, sexuality meetings, even a special training that Tawny's unit got because they had a Tyleenian member and they had to be prepared in case of sudden deatomization. And one by one, each new cadet had to keep their appointment with the Stage Five.
Aidel had kept the disposition of her effects secret until after her death, basically because she enjoyed the attention of the various entities who wanted them. But she wasn't immune to the romance of spaceflight, and so when her will was read, it was the National Space Exploration Administration that got the Stage Five, along with the necessary video footage of Aidel herself to be used while explaining the situation to the AI. "I want you to help them out for me," she said cheerily, looking straight into the camera (and, according to her will, rather enjoying the novelty of speaking from beyond the grave). "You know what you like, and all of the other AIs respond very much like you do, so you'll do better than any of them at choosing people to work with your kids up there." She pointed one finger upward, and smiled. "Just remember, don't you go and love any of them more than you love me."
So for more than a century, new cadets had been paraded past the Stage Five and given a script to read. The content didn't matter; the Computer Interface Specialists sat up late one night, came up with something that made them laugh, and then made up excuses about consonantal lip movements or something else meaningless. No one ever called them on it, because when it came to the Stage Five, what the CI Specialists said went. When Tawny sat down and read it, the script was a collection of deeply unfunny lightbulb jokes (How many first-years does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Three: Two to do the screwing and the third to turn them in on honor code violations), and she had a lot of trouble taking the whole thing seriously. She'd just spent her first personal combat class taking down a succession of larger, tougher-looking cadets, and she was absolutely sure that the more military end of the Academy was perfect for her. Not that she didn't have the required academic background as well, of course, but Tawny had always wanted a job where she carried a weapon at her hip, and so she was much more interested in thinking about pistol training than she was in the Stage Five.
After the second lightbulb joke (How many fourth-years does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None: They order a first-year to do it for them) the AI laughed and the testing supervisors sat up a little straighter in their chairs. "Keep reading," they said, so she did, and ten minutes later they handed her a sealed envelope and told her to take it upstairs to Commander Yoo.
The Commander was a good-looking man, with dark hair and dark eyes and a pleasant smile. That wasn't a surprise. Computer Interface was the best-looking specialty in the fleet, for reasons that made Tawny vaguely uncomfortable and contributed to their lightbulb joke (How many Computer Interface Specialists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Only two, but there's gonna be a hell of an audience!)
"So, you're going to specialize in Computer Interface," he said, and Tawny could have sworn she felt the ground shift beneath her feet.
"You've tested off the charts, Cadet Madison. Vocal meshing was excellent, the Stage Five responded very well, you're certainly physically attractive enough..." He looked her up and down in an appraising manner that seemed, for all its professional necessity, to have very little in common with the guidelines laid out during the Sexuality Meeting. "You're going to specialize in Computer Interface."
"Sir, I'd hoped to specialize in Security..."
Commander Yoo shook his head, and Tawny thought that maybe there was real sympathy in his eyes. "I'm afraid that's out of the question now. The AIs can be fickle, and quite honestly, it's been years since the Stage Five has taken to anyone as strongly as it just took to you. Congratulations. You'll be receiving an adjusted schedule tomorrow morning."
She saluted, like a good cadet; he reached out and took her hand, shook it, which was a little surprising but she rolled with it. "Thank you, sir," she said, and turned, walked out of the office, heard the door close behind her.
Tawny remembered the sound of that door closing for a long time. She'd hear it sometimes when she was repeating the damn computer for the eighteenth time; she definitely heard it the first time she had to deal with an AI exhibiting what her textbooks had called "anomalously personalized behavior" and what Tawny called "being seriously creepy, and no, it couldn't choose her clothes for her." She'd had to do a Series Two wipe that time, not to mention having to go before the Board of Review in order to prove that her behavior had been professional and had not in any way encouraged the thing to crush on her. (No one on the board seemed to appreciate the irony of "never encourage them!" combined with "but make sure to wear a flattering uniform!" Actually, Tawny didn't appreciate it either, though she was certainly aware of it.)
At least once she was stationed onboard the Protector Commander Taggart took her off the ship with him, thought she was useful to have along on planetary missions. Tawny thought she should probably tell him not to; her backup was fine, perfectly competent, but the Protector liked Tawny best, and having her be unavailable was just asking for trouble.
She didn't, though. She tried to be a good soldier about it, but she needed the time away, and it was such a relief to be somewhere, anywhere, where she wasn't surrounded by just a little too much love.