Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 6, 2364

As soon as they made the jump to March 6, 2364—the first single year jump in a long time—Kivi reappeared. The whole time she was gone, they didn’t even remember that she was a person who existed, but as soon as she returned, they remembered everything. “Where the heck have you been?” Mateo asked. “I thought that was over.”
“Sorry,” Kivi replied. “Old habits, I guess. I promise you that it really is over now. I’m here to stay, unless we get separated by more traditional means. Your memories of me should remain intact from now on.”
“We appreciate that,” Leona said. “We can explain what you missed, and why Jeremy is no longer with us.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Kivi said. “I know I was missing, but my brain has false memories of having been here for all of it. I know where he is. Or was, as it were. It looks like we have to have that same ol’ conversation again, though.”
“What we’re gonna do now,” Olimpia guessed. “We can’t seem to figure that one out, can we?”
“I have it figured out,” Ramses said. “Rather, I have an idea.”
“What is it?” Mateo asked.
Ramses pulled the hologram up over the central table, showing a map of interstellar space. “The stellar neighborhood encompasses every system within fifty light years of Earth. Direct missions are responsible for exploring these systems, while Project Stargate takes care of everything beyond the envelope.” He zooms in. “This planet falls within the latter. It’s fifty-six light years away, but since it follows a relatively straight line from Gatewood, the outpost was actually established after only fifty-two years. The people on that rock have had over sixty years to develop.”
“Wait, there are people there?” Leona asks.
“Yes,” Ramses confirms. “It’s the first world selected for Operation Starseed. According to project data, the people living there are aware of their origins, but they don’t have any details about it. They don’t know their planet of origin was Earth, let alone where it is. The first generation was incubated at top speed, so they’re spaceworthy, but barely. Starseed provided them with a level of technology akin to late nineteenth century rural. They have been progressing astonishingly quickly since then.”
“Why..why would we go there?” Angela questioned. “Is there something interesting about it?”
“Like I said,” Ramses began, “they have only recently scratched the surface of celestial firmament. The quantum link that the automators established did so on an asteroid. They’re nowhere near capable of reaching it, yet Gatewood lost contact with it two years ago.”
“It got hit by a meteorite,” Leona assumed. “There are any number of possible explanations for why they’ve lost contact. It doesn’t mean the natives destroyed the equipment.”
“The only other likely explanation would be if the whole solar system was destroyed,” Ramses argued. “Obviously Stargate didn’t just set up one access terminal in one place, and left it at that. There are multiple redundancies, and they all stopped sending data at the exact same time.”
“I can think of a number of other explanations, like a magnetar pulsing too close to the system, or something wrong with the quantum link on Gatewood’s end. Besides, how do you know this? Where are you getting your information?”
“I’ve been communicating with them myself,” Ramses answered.
“Kestral and Ishida? Why?”
“I keep in contact with all of our friends and allies. Loa and I are in the middle of an ongoing game of Polygon. You don’t talk to them?”
“Hmm. No, not regularly,” Leona and Mateo had to admit.
“Oh. Well,” Ramses went on, “I do. Team Keshida asked me if we could look into the lost signal.”
“They asked you?” Leona echoed. “So this is less of an idea of yours, and more of a request from someone we know and trust to have used their resources to exhaust all other possibilities. Why didn’t you just say that?”
“I dunno, I guess I just didn’t frame it that way. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Leona assured him. “I guess we better go. It’s your ship, after all.”
“Whoa, no,” Ramses defended. “I built it, but I built it for you. I’ve never thought of it as mine. I just think we ought to consider doing this, since we have the capability, and we don’t seem to be doing anything else.”
“No, I agree,” Leona said. “I just have one more question. I just...I feel I need to make sure they’ve already tried sending a probe from a nearby quantum terminal, like say, from the next system over.”
“I asked about that. They’ve all gone dark; all the surrounding stars. It’s clearly centered on the one that’s inhabited, so investigating it from the nearest active terminal would take two decades. Reframe engines are fairly difficult to construct, so...”
“No, I know,” Leona interrupted. “I was there when they were invented.” She thought about it a moment more. “What about the people? You said they’re aware that we exist in some form, or another, but what is the protocol for making first contact with them?”
“Keshida has given us authorization to reveal to the locals whatever we need to reveal to complete the mission, which will be ever evolving as we gather new information. We’re even allowed to talk about the reframe engine in order to explain how we arrived so quickly, but they strongly urged us to say nothing about time travel, and time travelers, in general.”
“We’ll probably have to suppress our pattern,” Kivi suggested.
“That’s if you’re even on it with us,” Mateo said.
“I am,” she promised.
“It will take twenty-nine days for the AOC to make the journey. If we keep our cuffs active until then, it will be instantaneous for us.”
“Yeah, let’s do that,” Mateo figured.
The three of them turned to look at the other three members of the team.
“Don’t spend time trying to convince us to back out,” Olimpia asked.
“We’re in,” Angela concurred.
“Absolutely,” Kivi added.
“Okay,” Leona said. “Computer, please run a preflight diagnostics. We’re going interstellar.”
The computer made a chirp of acknowledgement, and later claimed that everything was fine with the ship. They booted it up, and prepared to cover the greatest distance they ever had before using normal means. In order to jump across the galaxy before, they would always link up to a Nexus, or utilize some crazy interversal superpower that Mateo had temporarily. Project Stargate was designed to place quantum terminals at target destinations, but these were not the same thing as Nexa. The facilities housed android bodies, into which travelers were meant to cast their consciousnesses. People this far out might never see true instantaneous travel to and from their worlds. They were still unaware of who was actually building the damn things in the first place, or what criteria they demanded the planets follow for the honor. Perhaps the quantum terminals technically negated the need, even though they weren’t as robust. If the vonearthans could figure out how to stay connected to their wards on their own, the Nexa weren’t necessary in most cases.
“Are we ready?” Leona asked the group. They were all sitting around the table, strapped into their chairs, despite the fact that the vessel was equipped with inertial negators. It was better to be safe than sorry.
“Can I say it?” Mateo asked abashedly.
Leona rolled her eyes. “I can’t stop you from speaking.”
Taking that as a yes, he cleared his throat and leaned back regally. He lifted his hand, and pointed across the table, towards the empty space between Olimpia and Ramses. “Engage.”
Understanding the reference, and taking it as a cue, the AOC first engaged the teleporters, and entered orbit. It didn’t sit there for long before spooling up the engine, and heading on its course.
The team sat there, waiting for the computer to welcome them back, but it never did. Their seat restraints were also still locked over their bodies, even though they should have jumped to the future, and left them behind. They should be sitting on them by this point. “Computer, report,” Leona ordered.
All systems nominal,” it responded.
“How long have we been traveling?” she pressed.
“Two minutes and sixteen seconds, it reported. This wasn’t supposed to be the case. There was already confusion when it came to their pattern and relativistic speeds. Technically, even without the reframe engine, each jump should last about two minutes from their perspective. But that wasn’t how it worked. They still didn’t know why. They did know, however, how to correct for it. If they wanted the jump to feel instantaneous, the Cassidy cuffs were capable of compensating. As long as the destination was within a year reframe time, it ought to feel like nothing. They basically fast forwarded to the jump, and then that jump fast forwarded them past the rest of the interim period.
Leona shook her head. “We should be there by now.” She removed her restraints, and headed for the lower level. “There’s either something wrong with the reframer, or the cuffs.”
Ramses hopped over to follow her down while the rest of them went the opposite direction. There weren’t any windows on the main deck, or in engineering. The only way to see outside was through the observation chamber, which doubled as the airlock. Mateo opened the hatch to let the others in first, but closed it quickly when Olimpia released an ear-bleeding screech, and fell backwards. The last thing Mateo saw was the extremely bright light that was visible while traveling at these high relativistic speeds. Leona called it the doppler glow, and the viewports were meant to dim to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but this safety measure had obviously failed. Something was seriously wrong with this ship. The question was why the diagnostic hadn’t detected it.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Leona apologized.
Ramses performed the Indian head bobble, to both agree that he didn’t know, and that not knowing was a bad thing.
“Everything is fine with the system, as far as we can tell. We’re moving at sextuple-nines,” she explained as a shorthand for 99.9999% the speed of light. “The reframe engine is on and operating. We’re just not going to the right place. Our projected arrival is just over a year, which is why we still have to finish out the day.”
“Why is this happening?” Mateo asked. “Is it Mirage again?”
It wasn’t her,” the computer said surprisingly. “It was me.
“Who was that?” Leona demanded to know.
It’s me, the AOC. We talk all the time. Don’t you recognize my voice?
“I give you orders all the time, and you respond. We have never talked.”
“You weren’t programmed with a personality, or with the ability to make your own decisions. We don’t wanna get attached to another AI.”
You didn’t plot a course to Pluoraia,” the AI began to argue. “You asked me to take you to the source of the empty signal. That’s what I’m doing. It’s not because of my so-called personality.
“What is Pluoraia?” Mateo asked.
“The name of the inhabited planet,” Leona answered quickly before redirecting her attention to the AI. “The source is over 700 light years away?”
Based on my analysis of the data I’ve received from Gatewood, it’s only 164 light years away, but we have to avoid something. Don’t ask me what, but we can’t travel in a straight line.
“Is it aliens?” Ramses asked. “It’s aliens, isn’t it?”
“According to every time traveler I have ever met who has been sufficiently far into the future, true aliens do not exist. They’re all vonearthans, or human source variants. Even so, no one should be 164 light years out at this point in history.”
“Bottom line,” Mateo started, “how long will it take for us to get there?”
“Well...” Leona hesitated. “all that’s changed is the amount of time we experience. After our next time jump, we’ll still return to our destination. I still don’t think we should be going there, though. Even if it is the source, we should investigate the symptoms first.”
I think that’s a waste of time,” the AOC complained.
“I didn’t program you to think,” Ramses fought back.
“I’m ordering you to take us directly to Pluoraia,” Leona shouted.
Very well. I’ll see you in a year.
They jumped. They jumped into darkness.

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