Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 14, 2372

Like all the various shuttles in the Orvilleverse, the Tahani looked like a smaller version of the Jameela Jamil. It was just as exquisite and powerful, but with a lower capacity. The four not-so-qualified people on the team waited until the next year showed up before making the jump to their destination. Or series of jumps, rather. Burst mode topped out at one jump per second, but it was possible to make it go slower to protect the integrity of the engine. The ship was fully capable of piloting itself, which meant no one on board needed to understand how it worked, but it was still safer to be cautious. If something went wrong, there would be no one around to effect repairs. Still, it took them less than a half hour to make their way out of the intergalactic void, and into orbit around a planet called New Earth. When Mateo questioned the unoriginality of the name, the computer informed them that it was just a placeholder until a real name could be conceived.
Operation Starseed was launched alongside Project Stargate in order to plant new human-based life on various exoplanets. There were all sorts of ethical and logistical considerations that dictated which worlds would become part of the program, and which would be left alone. The complexities of this went beyond any single entity, even a general artificial intelligence. Technically, any celestial object capable of accommodating a ship landing on it could be modified to harbor any life necessary. This ruled out stars, blackholes, neutron stars, magnetars, and the like. It did not rule out planets, moons, asteroids, meteoroids, and comets. Even a house-sized object could be terraformed in the loosest sense of the word. Spin gravity and pressurization allowed for just about anything to become habitable. Even so, not every single object was a candidate, again for a multitude of reasons that no single individual understood in its entirety. Every seed plate responsible for its particular region of interstellar space held within it the ingredients for starseeding, but not every one of them will ultimately be activated. It all depended on what Teagarden and Earth decided through their complicated flavor of socio-political and scientific discourse.
New Earth was a perfect candidate for starseeding, because it demanded very little modification. It enjoyed a 0.989 ranking on the Terrestrial Habitability Similarity Index. It didn’t really get better than that without getting as good as Dardius, which they only found in another galaxy. After some thoughtful research, leadership chose New Earth as the home for a special initiative. There were a number of ways they could play it when they seeded life on a world. How involved, and how protective, they were yet again depended on factors no one could hope to comprehend. The people of Pluoraia, for instance, were aware of their alien origins, but were not in communication with the homeworld. That had yet to change, even after Mateo and the team made first contact. Other outposts would not even be that connected. Perhaps the rarest of these would be New Earth protocol. The first generation of humans, which were expected to undergo no genetically adaptive source variant, would be raised by skinjob androids, and once they matured, would be left completely alone. No quantum terminal, no access to historical records, no rumors of space colonization. They would have to come up with their own language, their own customs, their own governing system. If they failed and died out, then they failed and died out, and no one would be allowed to interfere in any way.
No one would be allowed to intervene with the New Earthans—or whatever they ended up calling themselves—unless they became a Class IX Threat, which meant they compromised the prosperity of the entire galaxy. That won’t happen for a long time, if ever. Until then, the B-team was being charged with protecting the future of New Earth from what appeared to be a measly Class VI Threat, while the A-team continued to solve the issue of a Class VIII. That was not to undersell it, though. The first generation of New Earth hadn’t even begun developing in their little gestation pods yet. This wasn’t scheduled to begin for another 27 years or so. Whatever the Quantum Colony players who found this place first were doing now, it could endanger that population. They had to be stopped, and the B-team were the only ones who could do it. The Tahani AI scanned the surface of the planet, and found no signs of technology. That was all relegated to the quantum terminal, which had set up shop on the moon.
“Are we ready,” Mateo posed, “to find out what’s going on?”
“Are you the leader?” Olimpia asked.
“I should be,” Mateo answered in perfect deadpan. “I’m the smartest one here.”
They all tried to hold out as long as they could, but the laughter fell out of them like a waking volcano.
“Between Angela and Kivi,” Mateo went on as he was securing his shoe tighteners.
“No thanks,” Kivi said quickly.
“Nose goes,” Olimpia said to Angela.
“We’re all in charge,” Angela contended. “Let’s just get to the quantum terminal to find out who is here, and what they want.”
“Good idea, boss.” Mateo dropped his face shield, and hovered his hand over his teleporter. He made eye contact with everyone, making sure they were ready to go. They nodded accordingly, and then simultaneously jumped into the facility.
It wasn’t long before they had to use their sonic disruptors. In the next room, several people attacked with projectile weapons. Their bullets never landed where they were meant to. Everyone on the team was wearing a banish-suit. It produced a teleporter field around the wearer. Anything moving at sufficient velocity was instantly transported to the farthest point possible from dense matter. If they were on a planet, that might be the open sky, but here, it meant the vacuum of outer space. Banish-clothing was nothing flashy. As far as the attackers were concerned, their bullets simply missed. Teleportation arrival notwithstanding, the team wasn’t authorized to reveal the truth about salmon and choosers to these people.
Once they were all disabled and unconscious, Mateo was assigned the role of tying them all up to the console. He could say this much about himself, he was the physically strongest in the group, whether that was his only useful attribute, or not. The other three searched the rest of the facility to make sure no one else was here. Then they returned, and waited for the prisoners to wake up.
In the meantime, Kivi got to work on the quantum terminal to see if she could get it back online. Angela was old, and had a lot of experience, but little of it involved computers. They were available in the afterlife simulation, but difficult to learn accurately, since the only reason the art of programming existed was because it was the closest thing people could get to adapting their world to their whims, which the simulation itself provided. It was kind of like sticking your straw in a shot glass that was dropped in a picture. Not really any point to it.
A few hours later, the first of them awakened. They didn’t say a word at first, and neither did the b-team. Mateo watched them, though, to see what information he could gather from their body language. One of the prisoners regarded the b-team with such disgust that he had to be the enforcer of the group. Most of the others couldn’t help but drift their gazes towards one man, while he looked around at them to make sure they were okay. Him. Mateo reached down, and pulled the leader up from his collar. He set him down in a chair, and rolled him away from his friends. “What are you doing in this terminal?”
“This is ours,” the leader guy replied. “What are you doing here?”
“Official business from Teagarden,” Mateo responded.
“Hmph. You don’t look like a strike team. You don’t move like one either.”
“Why would they send a strike team?” Mateo asked. “They don’t want to hurt you. Why did you not return when you were recalled?”
“This is our home now.”
Okay. “What is Quantum Colony?”
“A lie.”
That was probably enough for Mateo to guess that he understood it wasn’t really a game. “Are you aware that the terrestrial planet in this star system has been chosen as the birthbasket of a new race of humans, and is to remain untouched by vonearthans for the foreseeable deep future?” He worked very hard to memorize that argument, so he wouldn’t look like an unqualified idiot.
“If they wanted it to remain untouched, they should have excluded it from the game,” the leader argued with airquotes.
“I do not believe that they were aware of their own plans until it was time to make them. Either way, you broke the rules, you tampered with the quantum terminal. That alone is enough to ban you.”
“Ban us from what, the game? We established that it’s not a game at all. Only morons believed that.” The truth was far easier to glean than Teagarden seemed to have given their players credit for. “We don’t have the right to stay here because we claimed it for some make believe immersion reality game. We have the right, because we got here first, and we established lives here.”
Kivi stopped what she was doing for a moment. “No, you didn’t. The terminal itself was here first, and it didn’t just build itself out of magic, did it? No, it was constructed by an AI, which would have first claim above all others. You had to take this place from it. The fact that it probably didn’t fight back is irrelevant to the property law.”
The leader guy smirked. “I would never fight against my friends.” With that, he split his skull in several parts, revealing gear, wires, and other such computer components inside where his brain would be if he were an organic entity. Once they saw his guts, he closed everything back up. He made no move to free himself from the chains, even though he was surely strong enough to do so.
“Don’t lie to us,” Angela insisted. “Are you the artificial intelligence that landed on this world, and engineered the technology in the solar system, including the quantum terminal, and the satellites?”
“That’s me...self-aware me.”
“I don’t know how to tell if you’re lying,” Angela reasoned.
“I don’t think he is,” Kivi said. “Like Sasha, I’m seeing a record of the AI uploading itself into a mobile substrate. I can’t say that this is it, but...”
“What does it matter if he’s an AI?” Olimpia questioned. “He’s still just a person, and Teagarden says he’s not supposed to be here.”
“They can’t say that,” Kivi began to explain. “Colony law. Realspace travel supersedes all other forms of colonization. Teagarden once communicated with this system using a quantum link. The players, which I assume these other people are, arrived here via quantum cast. Since they came in physical form, their rights would override any orders that Teagarden gave, except that they accepted the terms of service for the Quantum Colony game, which states that all worlds fall under Teagarden jurisdiction, and they don’t actually own anything. That’s how the military was able to recall even people who refused to cast themselves back. But none of that matters, because the AI—whether this man who claims to be said AI is telling the truth, or not—came here on a seed plate via Project Stargate. It came here physically, through real space. If it claims to be capable of expressing its own desires, then it is necessarily capable of experiencing its own desires. Therefore, if it desires to own this solar system, the proverbial flag that it stuck in the ground must be honored. If the four of us had come, and they weren’t here, the planet would have been ours, if we wanted it.”
“So, that’s it? There’s nothing we can do?” Angela asked.
“We can report back to Teagarden, and the government can either fight diplomatically, or start a war,” Kivi said. “That’s not really up to us. They are free to make their own decisions, and the colonists are free to do the same. If we can confirm that this man is telling the truth about his nature, then this inquiry will be over.”
“Okay, how do we do that?” Angela asked.
“Well,” Kivi started. “If he’s eager to prove himself, he’ll use his authorization codes to open the quantum terminal for casting. Then one of our people can cast their consciousness here, and...they’ll know what to do. We are not educated enough for the level of Turing testing that this situation calls for. I assume Leona isn’t either.”
“If I open casting,” the leader argues, “Teagarden will be able to send whoever they want, including an actual strike team.”
“That’s true,” Kivi relented.
“What about...?” Mateo began, not wanting to give anything away, and hoping that Kivi would realize he was suggesting they open another sustained transport closet.
“Out of range,” Kivi apologized. “At least it is if they want to keep the one between the JJ and the AOC open at the same time, which they kind of need to.”
“What about the Tahani?” Olimpia suggested vaguely.
“There are no casting terminals on the ship,” Angela reminded her.
“But there are us,” Olimpia began. “And we’re still wearing these.” She showed them her Cassidy cuff.
Mateo didn’t understand it completely, but he knew what they were saying. “I’ll do it. I’ll switch with Kestral or Ishida.”
“We’ll let them decide that,” Angela said. “You and I will be the ones who go back up there, and apprise them of the situation.”
In the end, Mateo was indeed chosen to make the switch. He was already on the Tahani, and it didn’t really matter. Kestral put on one of the extra Cassidy cuffs, and swapped bodies with him. It was weird for him, being inside of a female substrate. She wasn’t a hundred percent organic, but she sure felt like it. He might need to get used to it too. Something went wrong, and they found themselves unable to switch back.

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