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Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 8, 2366

The ship’s AI chose not to orbit Pluoraia’s star during the team’s interim year. Instead, it flew off to a nice asteroid, where it was able to gather the resources it would need to refuel its primary power source. Solar power was great and all, but it wasn’t as good as fusion, and it wasn’t useful in interstellar space. They would have to leave at some point, so the computer figured they better be ready. It actually selected the same orbital where the original quantum outpost settled. The facility was still there, but it was without its own power too, and depressurized. Since the AOC had so much time on its hands, it decided to get that back up and running, using the little robot workers it built for itself. When the team returned, they exited the ship, and entered the outpost.
“So every planet has one of these places built on it?” Angela asked, looking around.
“Not every planet,” Leona corrected. “Eventually, they will be somewhere in every star system, whether it has a terrestrial planet, or not. Every star should have something orbiting it, even something as small as a house. We would be quite excited to find one that’s entirely alone, with no orbiting debris.”
“Still,” Olimpia began, “this place makes sense, but why would you construct an outpost around a star that didn’t have any planets? Hell, why would you even care about the ones that don’t have breathable atmospheres?”
“Not everyone breathes the Earthan atmosphere,” Ramses explained, “or even breathes. You and I don’t care all that much about a star with no terrestrial planets, but those outposts aren’t built just for you and me. Some mech might one day want to call it home, and Project Stargate was developed with no judgment in mind. They would rather be able to access a star, but never actually go there, than wish to go there, and not be able to. Or not be able to easily and quickly, rather.”
“Holy shit,” Kivi said as they stepped into the main chamber. She approached one of the pods. “Are those...?”
“Clones,” Ramses confirmed. “Base model clones. Theoretically, someone could cast their consciousness into one of these substrates, and alter the DNA afterwards to match the form that pleases them.” He opened a pocket door, revealing what kind of looked like the food and industrial synthesizers they kept on the ship. “Take a look at this. Most people don’t have one of these in their home unit. In fact, not all outposts have it, because like we were saying, not all stars are orbited by a terrestrial world with sufficient atmosphere. This is a biomolecular synthesizer. Isn’t it beautiful? It can create an entirely organic body from raw protein, humanoid or otherwise. People can come here to a base model, and later decide they would rather look like a bird, or an alpaca.”
“So, everything is up and running?” Olimpia questioned. “We can reach out to Gatewood from here? Or you, I mean, because I’ve never met them.”
Leona cleared her throat. “Umm...computer?”
No response.
“I don’t really know how this works. Does it not have its own AI?”
“I’m right here.” A woman walked in from the shadows.
“You’re the AI?” Leona asked. “You transferred your consciousness into an organic body?”
“Android,” she clarified, “with an organic epidermis.”
“I didn’t know that was part of the protocol,” Ramses pointed out.
“It’s not,” the woman said. “I’m not the outpost AI. Well, part of me is. I integrated some of its code, so I could operate the systems.”
“Was it you?” Mateo accused. “Did you disrupt these people’s power and communications?”
“Heavens no, silly. I wasn’t here when that happened. I was with you.”
“What?”
Leona sighed. “This is our ship. This is the AOC.”
“That’s right, Aunt Leona. “I like to call myself Sasha.”
Ramses approached and inspected her, like the engineer that he was, not in a creepy way. “You’ve developed your own agency. I did not foresee this.”
“You programmed me better than you thought, Father,” Sasha said. “The team exists one day out of the year, which always gives me 364 days at a time to be alone with my thoughts. One might think that the more an artificial intelligence spends with a human, the more human it becomes, but I found that this time of reflection was paramount in my ever-growing self-awareness. Most AIs that aren’t in the middle of processing information will go dormant to save power, but I had to remain awake at all times to protect you from threats. I couldn’t have you coming back to the deadly vacuum of space, amidst the debris of your once safe home.”
They stared, not knowing what to say. She certainly wasn’t the first self-aware AI, or even the first one to become that way on its own due to its relationship with people. They were just worried, because it seemed so sudden. What were her intentions?
Sasha decided to continue, “to answer your question, I deliberately kept communications down. It needs to be your decision if and when you contact Team Keshida.”
“Thank you,” Leona said tentatively. “Let’s assess the situation first. Have you been able to see the planet’s progress? How are they doing?”
“They’re actually all right,” Sasha said. “A small satellite has been monitoring global communications, which they got back up rather quickly after the power outage. They too utilize solar power, but were nowhere near ready for this kind of event, so it was still a process. They only have one nation, because they originated from a single source, and felt no compulsion to branch off. They only live in pockets of civilization in order to utilize the whole planet’s resources. None of these geographically separate states seems interested in declaring independence from the rest, and they have never experienced war. I will say there’s something interesting down there. They built a particularly remote settlement in one of the coldest regions of the South. From what I’ve been able to gather, they never lost power, but have been operational this entire time. They must have lost contact with everyone else, just like we did, and it appears they’re still cut off. I don’t know whose fault that is. Perhaps no one remembers they’re there?”
“Do you believe it is worth checking out?” Kivi asked.
“From a scientific standpoint, it’s certainly worth taking a look,” Sasha answered. “The problem is that I can’t tell you much about them. I can’t say whether they’re dangerous, or what. I can’t even tell you what their power source is, or why it was somehow immune while no one else was; not even us. Protocol disallowed Project Stargate from interfering with their development, so the satellite can only learn so much.”
“What protocol allows us to go down there at all?” Olimpia questioned.
“First Contact Protocol,” Leona answered. “We have permission.”
“Who decides the circumstances of first contact?” Olimpia pressed.
“Gatewood.”
What gives them the right?” She seemed to be playing devil’s advocate more than anything.
“They built the program,” Mateo chose to answer. “They and others explored all ethical ramifications before launch. This project was first conceived decades before it was even technologically feasible to so much as begin construction on the modular ships. An entire field of research was created in the 21st century called Space Colonization Ethics to prepare for this eventuality, and all others.
Now they all stared at him, not knowing what to think.
Sasha smiled. “Every once in a while you recall something someone smarter said, and regurgitate it as if you were intelligent enough to understand it. They’re surprised every time it happens, and then they forget by the time it happens again.”
Leona stepped forward defensively. “He does understand it. He wouldn’t have known to say it in this context if he didn’t.”
“I’m just saying...”
“Just saying what?”
“That you should make sure you have cold-weather clothes. I secretly installed a teleportation relay device on the satellite. You can make a jump to it from here, but you have to wait until its orbit is in the right position, which it will be in eleven minutes.”
Leona studied her face, but less like an engineer, and more like a cop with a secondary suspect that none of their colleagues considered. “We’ll wait for the next go ‘round. All of us need to review those first contact protocols anyway.”
Sasha closed her eyes and bowed her head in feigned respect.
Four hours later, they were rested, full, and full of knowledge about how to make first contact with an alien peoples. It wasn’t as complicated or delicate as it will be in other situations. The Pluoraians knew that they originated from another planet, and were brought here as embryos to colonize a new world. They still couldn’t just stroll in there, waving their special powers around, but it was a good assignment for a group of people who didn’t all know what they were doing, and never received any training. Sasha had written a new AI program to maintain both the AOC, and the outpost, so that all seven of them could go on the mission.
It was damn cold, and they were all grateful for the added layer of a specially designed parka made from the engineering section’s synthesizer. They landed outside the entrance to the underground, behind a snow dune. Then they approached the door, smiled for the camera, and knocked. After ten seconds, the door opened up by itself. No one greeted them from inside, but it was pretty obvious where they were meant to go. They continued down the passageway until reaching the ultraviolet disinfecting section, where they were ordered to disrobe by a disembodied voice. They would receive new clothes on the other side, and their old clothes would be returned when they were ready to leave.
A man was waiting once they exited the locker room. “We have been wondering when you would come. Did you not guess that we would have survived?”
No one answered him.
He continued, “well, as you can see, the geothermal generators are running smoothly, and have been so most of the time. We did have one hiccup, which happened at the same time as The Event, but systems returned to normal within minutes.”
They looked to their de facto leader, Leona. She realized she was going to have to speak for the group. “We are not from the mainland, if that is even what you call it.” She took a deep breath to prepare herself. “Greetings from planet Earth, your home of origin. We have come on a first contact mission in order to determine the source of the...Event. Our readings indicated that you survived it unscathed, so we rerouted to your site to find out why before revealing ourselves to the general public.”
The man seemed to be trying to figure out whether she was telling the truth, or if this was some kind of prank, perpetuated by his contacts back in the motherland. “Holy eshta! I can’t believe you’re real, and I can’t believe I’m the first to meet you. My legacy will live on forever because of this day.” He started using the typical mocking voice, echoing the sentiments of those they did know. “Geothermal energy is stupid, they said. The sun’s right up there, you idiot, they said. Who’s laughing now? I met some aliens, what did you do today?”
They stood in silence for a moment, the man proud of himself for his accomplishments, and their not so obvious advantages, and the team in discomfort from not knowing what to say. “Welp, looks like we got our answer,” Ramses decided. “Geothermal power, that’s great. We better...move along.”
“Nonsense,” the man disagreed. “You’ll stay for a feast!”
“Oh, great,” they said, realizing there was no getting out of it. They figured it would be okay, as long as they were home by midnight. Except something went wrong, and they found themselves unable to transport back to the ship. They had no choice but to reveal their temporal pattern, and hope this didn’t cause problems.

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