That Other, Slightly Better World

Marathon Class Starship
UNDF Leyte Gulf
Elliptical Orbit
9 AUs From Luyten’s Star
April 2219

“Ma’am?” Katie Hawthorne asked nervously, nudging Maeve O’Donnell awake. “The Martians have stopped jamming us, the alien ship is gone.

The Commodore sat up in her chair and habitually tucked her hair behind her ears, “Order our e-war to stand down as well.”

Katie nodded and began issuing commands into the headset. Maeve’s own headset was floating on the end of its cord nearby. She reeled it in and shoved it over her ears, as she did this, she swung her chair around and made eye contact with an idle specialist, “Go get me some coffee,” she instructed, “Katie how long was I out for?”

“About four hours ma’am,” Katie replied, “After what happened with the Normandy, we thought we should let you rest. The jamming just let up a moment ago.”

“And the aliens are gone?” Maeve asked, accepting a cup of coffee as it was handed to her.

“We lost them on sensors as soon as the electronic warfare started up,” Katie answered with a shrug, “But they seem to be gone now, yes.”

“Well damn,” Maeve mused, taking a sip of her coffee.

“We’re getting a tightbeam from the Light of Ages, would you like me to put it through?” Katie asked.

“Yeah, go ahead, let’s see what the Admiral has to say about this,” Maeve replied.

Katie established the connection and Admiral Wallace was immediately shouting at them.

“Do you fools have any idea what you’ve cost us here today?” He roared at them.

“Well, since you’ve had us jammed and incommunicado this entire time, no, we don’t,” Maeve replied sternly.

“Our survey vessel reports that the aliens have classified our species as warlike and cut all diplomatic contact,” His voice was a low, dangerous growl, “we were doing just fine here for a month before you lot showed up, and in less than a day you have potentially screwed the pooch on our future relations with these creatures.”

“Maybe if you hadn’t decided to initiate hostilities with a peaceful contact expedition, they wouldn’t think we’re warlike,” she smiled sweetly at him in a way that made her look very much like someone’s grandmother.

“Maeve,” he said seriously, “We were doing good, important work here, the things we’ve learned affect the future of the human race, and your actions here may have dangerously altered that future trajectory.”

“It’s politics Adam,” she retorted, “The politicians make dancing monkeys of us all.”

“This should be beyond politics!” He roared, “When the Reshapers reach Sol, you think they’re going to care what planet you’re from when they take you apart for raw materials?”

Maeve raised an eyebrow, confused, “The Reshapers?”

Admiral Wallace studied Commodore O’Donnell through the cameras for a moment and slowly smiled, “I am about to take a huge shit on all of your politicians.”

The connection cut out abruptly, and Maeve’s eyes automatically went from the screen to Katie, “He broke the connection on their end, but they’re sending us something,” the system specialist reported.

“What is it?” Maeve asked the other girl.

“It’s a compressed video archive labeled Reshapers,” Katie answered.

“Play it,” Maeve said.

Katie nodded and directed the first video in the sequence at the main screen.

Maeve watched the alien video with wide eyes. She and saw, and she saw, and she saw.

 

Newton Class Starship
MSCV Empiricist
Elliptical Parking Orbit
9 AUs from Luyten’s Star
April 2219

The two fleets both orbited Luyten’s star at 9 AUs, maintaining a steady 50,000 kilometers of distance between them. The electronic warfare had fallen away when it was realized there was nothing to fight over anymore, and the opposing forces had taken to glaring at each other across the intervening distance. After Admiral Wallace had shared the Reshaper data with the UN commodore, communications had fallen completely silent.

It wasn’t a formal staff meeting: Matthias Corbin, Orion Warrego, and of course Jean, were absent. Ivy had also broken out a bottle of scotch, which was technically against regulation but seemed called for. Cale, Kestral, Vedika, and Margaret had migrated into the conference room one by one, their faces etched with the same weariness as Ivy’s own.

Cale had been the first. He sat studying old slides he and Kestral had made over the past few months, staring at the images with a glazed look. When Ivy offered to join and brought liquor to sweeten the deal, he didn’t say no. They sat in silence drinking as Kestral and Margaret wandered in to join their silent vigil, but when Vedika entered and slumped into a chair, it didn’t take long for Ivy to let her emotions get the better of her.

“You know this is your fault,” Ivy accused, gesturing at Vedika with the scotch bottle in her hand, “It was your decision to always keep someone on the Lifeseeker during the diplomacy.”

Vedika swiped the bottle of scotch from Ivy’s outstretched hand and took her own swig of it, “Don’t remind me,” she said looking down at the table.

“They kidnapped my XO and could be dissecting her right now, so you don’t get the luxury of not being reminded,” Ivy berated the senior pragmatist.

“Look, I ran the probabilities, and determined there’d be a lower chance of them leaving in the middle of the talks if we kept someone on their ship,” Vedika answered, taking another swig of the bottle.

Cale took the bottle of scotch from Vedika and took a swig from it himself, “Maybe your math was wrong,” he said, “because it sure looks to me like they left in the middle of their talks anyway.”

Vedika resisted the urge to growl at the other Pragmatist, “My math was fine, the aliens just failed to behave within the most likely confines of the statistical model.”

“Must not have been a very good model then,” Cale persisted, handing the bottle of scotch back to Ivy.

Vedika’s face clouded over with an unreadable emotion, and she let her head fall against the conference table with a thump.

“Give me that,” Kestral said, swiping the bottle away from Ivy, and taking a cautious sip of it, “This whole thing is a mess, and you know who always managed to have the clearest head about it? Jean.” Ey raised the bottle in salute, took a swig of it, and handed it back to Ivy.

“You know I hated her guts when she first came aboard,” Ivy said wistfully, taking a swig of the scotch, “She was uptight, a stickler for the rules, and she constantly needed her hand held, but she really came through in the end.”

“I don’t think the Kiwawentoa will kill her,” Margaret offered, “It doesn’t seem like their style.”

“And you know that from spending a couple weeks talking to them?” Cale asked her, narrowing his eyes.

“Yeah,” Margaret said, crossing her arms, “I do think that. I think they’ll probably dump her in some specialized human habitat they build for her, as a test case for the larger human habitat they’re going to try and cram people into when they show up to evacuate Sol eventually.”

“That’s not an unreasonable supposition,” Vedika said, lifting her head enough to see, “But Cale’s correct, we don’t have enough data to say for sure how they’re going to act. We already made a mistake in regards to their behavior once,” she pursed her lips in worry.

Cale continued scrolling through the records of old slides he and Kestral had made for the staff meetings over the past few months, and came to the repetitive, partially translated warning about the Reshapers that the Kiwawentoa had been sending them before the communications protocols were fully established. He snorted, swiping the bottle of scotch back from Ivy.

“Something funny?” The commander asked him with a raised eyebrow.

He chuckled and shook his head, and gave the holographic image a shove, sliding it down the table to Margaret, “What is that untranslated time internal? It’s the time frame the Kiwawentoa gave us for the Reshapers to arrive at Sol.”

The linguist studied the curly text for a moment, consulted her notebook, and frowned, “It translates to The Greater Rotation, it was a year on their homeworld, it’s about three of our years,” she said finally, pushing the holographic screen back over to Cale.

Cale started cackling maniacally at that, unable to contain the flood of emotions, “Three years,” he hissed, his eye twitching, “We have three years before they show up.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Vedika insisted, “The human race is tough, we won’t go down without a fight.”

“Then we’ll go down with a fight,” Cale insisted back, “The Reshapers are an outside context problem, we aren’t more than a speed bump to them.”

“That sounds awfully nihilistic,” Vedika warned, her orange eyes narrowing threateningly, “You haven’t abandoned your Compact have you?”

Cale slammed his hand against the table and shouted, “Accuse me of that again I dare you! We’ll see how far it gets you.”

The two stared daggers at each other and Vedika sighed, breaking the contact first. She started to say something in response, but the speakers around the room cut her off.

“Commander,” The AI’s voice intruded on them, “The UN fleet is departing the system, they have all warped out towards Sol.”

Ivy sighed, “Things are only going to snowball from here. The Reshapers drastically change the galactic political landscape, there’s going to be a lot of upheaval in Sol as the news gets around.”

“Speaking of news commander,” The AI continued in her artificially chipper tone, “The independent news vessel Live From Space is requesting interviews with you and our science team.”

Ivy groaned and rubbed her face with her hands, “Pass them off to Admiral Wallace, let him deal with them.”

“I’m sorry ma’am,” Emmy retorted,  “but they are specifically presenting the contact in terms of a freedom of information request directed at Survey and the Pragmatists Guild, the two senior members of which in the system right now are…”

“Vedika and I,” the commander groaned and took a deep breath.

“Just deny their request,” Vedika said nonchalantly, stealing back the bottle of scotch.

“How does that help?” Ivy asked, “if we deny it, they’ll just get in injunction.”

“If we deny their request, the denial can be used to file a formal injunction against the Pragmatist’s Guild and Survey,” Vedika agreed with Ivy, gesturing with the bottle, “however, they have to file that injunction with the council of Consciences, which is all the way back in Sol. By the time an injunction could go through, this will all be out in the open one way or the other.”

“You heard her Emmy, deny their request,” Ivy instructed the AI.

Vedika staggered to her feet, the alcohol suddenly hitting her as the blood rushed from her head, forcing her to grip her chair for balance as her vision swam. She started to leave as her balance came back to her, then hesitated near the doorway.

“Their captain has declared her intent to file an injunction and cut the connection,” Emmy reported. Ivy grunted in response and the AI fell silent.

Cale kept scrolling through the slides as the room fell into another sullen silence. Kestral stole back the bottle of scotch and took another swig before handing it off to Margaret. Cale came to a slide where Jean and Kestral had drawn smiley faces onto all of the alien creatures and angrily dismissed the screen and stormed from the room before he could start crying or screaming.

Vedika pursed her lips and gave chase.

“Should I do something about that?” Ivy asked the remaining population of the room. Margaret shrugged and Kestral shook eir head.

“They’re the Pragmatists, let them figure it out,” the science officer declared.

Δ

Cale didn’t have a particular destination in mind as he fled the conference room, he just wanted to get away from everything and everyone. He made his way up a travel spoke from the ring towards the zero gravity modules at the heart of the ship, reasoning that there would be fewer people to bother him in freefall. Vedika paced him a few meters back, and it took him until very near the top of the shaft to realize she was following him.

“Do you have a problem?” He asked her angrily as he floated in the central axle.

“Do you?” She asked back, crossing her arms.

“Yes, a good friend of mine might be getting dissected right now, oh yeah, and it’s your fault,” he gave her an accusatory prod with his finger, sending her floating gently away from him. He pushed himself off the floor and floated off towards the prow of the ship, forcing Vedika to catch up.

“Look,” she said crossly as she finally caught up again, “I had to make a call, I weighed the odds, and I made it. It’s my job to make those hard calls, and it’s also your job, you should know why I made it. I don’t care if you don’t like me, it’s not my job for you to like me, but if you’re going to call yourself a Pragmatist you should understand why I did it.”

“I know why you did it!” He shouted as she backed him into the end of the hall at the entrance to the freefall bridge. He whirled on her, accusatory finger waving, “I am a Pragmatist, I know how the math works out, I know why you did it, I know it’s your fault, and I know I would have done the exact same thing in your place.”

She started to say something in response but he cut he off, his eyes blurred with moisture as he forced his voice to remain under control, “No, I know exactly how all the calculations went in your head, I took the same classes you did, you put yourself at risk there too, they could have flown away while you were on board, it wasn’t a risk you weren’t willing to take yourself. It would have seemed like an easy enough way to tilt the odds slightly in your favor. I would have done it too, I would have killed Jean just as readily as you did.”

He shoved her away from him and bounced off the door to the bridge, she caught herself on the wall and kicked off hard, catching and shoving into him before they both slammed back into the door. And then, she was kissing him, and he was kissing her, and their clothes were coming off even as they slipped into the secondary bridge and locked the door behind themselves.

Δ

“Today is April 15th 2219,” Ivy intoned to the room, “This is the 118th senior staff meeting of the 11th mission of the MSCV Empiricist,  In attendance today, Mission Commander Ivy Czininski, Senior Pragmatist Vedika Srivastava, Pragmacist Cale Rouschev, Chief Science Officer Kestral Schiaparelli, Chief Medical Officer Orion Warrego, Chief Engineer Mathias Corbin, Chief Linguist Margaret Armstrong, Chief Xenobiologist Major Morgan Sabaea, and Senior Conscience Evangeline Daedaelia.”

Ivy completed the introductions for the recording systems, but didn’t sit afterward, “We are now, all of us, at a crossroads. In roughly a week and a half, the MNCV Watt’s Engine will reach Sol with all of the data we collected. That was going to happen regardless of how things played out with the Kiwawentoa, and it’s still scheduled to happen. When they get back, the data will be presented to various committees and think tanks within Survey, the Navy, the Intelligence services, the Pragmatist’s Guild, and the Council of Consciences. Those groups will all pull their various levers operating the machinery of government, and some sort of conclusion is going to be reached regarding whether or not to reveal the Reshapers to the public.”

“They can’t hope to sit on this,” Evangeline interrupted, “It’s way too big to keep a secret, and Admiral Wallace already gave the Reshaper data to that UN Commodore, the UN are going to be acting on the information in a little under three weeks.”

“I agree,” Ivy held up a hand in a placating gesture, “And so does Admiral Wallace. He’s confident the decision will be made to go public with the information.”

“As a counterpoint,” Kestral said, “A lot of people are still going to freak out and act like it’s the end of the world.”

“You have to admit, we’re sort of edging into ‘end of the world’ territory in conceptual space,” Cale added in.

“Yeah…” Kestral said sadly, eir voice trailing off.

“What happens regarding the Reshapers is out of our hands at this point,” Ivy said, “Themis will reach its conclusion and Mars will act, we all did our parts by raising the alarm. Whatever action Themis gravitates to, the majority of this fleet will be returning to Sol to see that it is carried out. This ship however, has been authorized by Admiral Wallace to join the Destiny of Light and Bacon’s Legacy in sweeping Sagittarius for signs of the Reshapers or the Kiwawentoa. When the rest of the fleet departs for Sol, we’ll be departing for the outpost at Ross 154.”

That successfully generated a murmur among the occupants of the room. Ivy held her hands up to continue before the dialogue began again, “Major Sabaea, you’ll be returning to the Light of Ages for your next assignment, Dr. Armstrong and Pragmatist Srivastava, you’re both members of Survey and thus eligible for this next part. The Empiricist goes out on one-year long survey missions, and we’ve only been out of dock for six months so far. That mission has just been given a six-month extension, meaning we have another year out from Sol at minimum. Any member of Survey who wishes to return to Sol now however, will be able to return aboard the Light of Ages.

With that, Ivy clasped her hands together and took her seat, watching things play out.

“We figured out the interval on the Kiwawentoa warning message last night, and it’s three years,” Kestral said for the benefit of anyone who missed their informal drinking session, “A whole year out of that time, possibly the last…” ey tripped over eir words, not wanting to come off as despairing.

“I became a Pragmatist to deal with the hardest problems facing the human race, and I joined Survey to see the universe and poke it with a stick, I’m perfectly content to stay aboard,” Cale said, seeming much more chipper than he had last night.

A serious look passed between the two Pragmatists and Vedika turned to Ivy, “I’d like to stay on as well. Cale’s right, we’re out here on the edge to keep these from being humanity’s last few years.”

Kestral sighed, “I’m in, for science and such.”

Ivy patted the androgyne on eir back, “Does anyone actually want to leave?”

Mathias stood up, pursing his lips, “I’m an old man, I’m overdue for anti-senesic therapy, and I’d like to see Mars again before everything starts going to hell.”

“Margaret?” Ivy singled out the linguist, but the blonde haired woman simply shrugged.

“I’m not overdue for my anti-senesics, and I can’t very well talk to aliens on Mars now can I?” she asked, smiling.

“No,” Ivy met her smile, “I suppose you can’t.”

“What about you Ivy, you’re part of Survey, don’t you have a wife?” Cale asked her.

“She knows the work we’re doing is important,” Ivy shrugged, “It’s like you said Vedika, we’re out here on the edge, to make sure the humanity we return to has a future.”

“I just hope we succeed,” Kestral said softly.

“Yeah,” Ivy replied, “Me too.”

Δ

In the end, twelve members of the original crew on the Empiricist decided to return to Mars with the fleet instead of journeying onward with them to Ross 154. Mathias was the only member of the senior staff to go, and was replaced by a thin lanky androgyne named Orel Shaw. Ey seemed like a good human to Cale, if not a bit rough around the edges. Something about engineers just made them seem more abrasive than was strictly speaking required.

Jean’s replacement would meet up with them at Ross 154, and Vedika was temporarily bumped to Acting XO. Because she was acting as the XO, she was not allowed to also act as the senior pragmatist and Cale had his position back for the moment. In the long term, who knew? Despite their roll in the seat cushions, Cale’s emotions still fluctuated wildly when it came to the orange eyed woman. He wasn’t sure whether he hated her or was deeply attracted to her or some incredibly unhealthy combination of the two. There was just too much happening too quickly to get a good emotional read on things; before his mind could fully process one event, two more crazy things had already happened and it left Cale’s analytical parts screaming incoherently.

After the Third Fleet departed for Sol, and the Empiricist for Ross 154, Cale shut himself into the ship’s machine shop. He began laying out tools and equipment on the wide metal work table. There was a trancelike mantra to the way he performed this process, a deep-seated part of his Pragmatist training with the Inventariat Faction of the Pragmatist’s Guild. Each tool he removed and placed in its specific location triggered the next step in the mnemonic, unspooling the memory from his head and instilling its powerful sense of calm along with it.

Once his head was clear, he brought up the incredibly complex diagrams and blueprints the Kiwawentoa had provided on their hyperdrive, sprawling them across the table on dozens of holographic displays.

The design itself was fairly simple, with a central portal generator and a sort of spooling strung out to define the perimeter of a three-dimensional gateway into hyperspace. The math for it all seemed to work out, it would just take an obscene amount of exotic matter to make a portal of an appreciable diameter. In terms of exotic matter usage the Hyperdrive was far less efficient than the warp drive. Not only that but since hyperspace was a place itself, traversing it required expending fuel, whereas there was no fuel cost associated with warping beyond what it took to match orbital velocities upon exiting the warp tunnel.

It was a wildly inefficient process that only seemed reasonable from the alien’s perspective. Hyperspace was apparently full of exotic matter, to the point where using up enormous quantities of it was not considered a big deal. Add in the Kiwawentoa’s apparently reactionless drives, and it started to make some sense.

There was definitely a lot that could be learned by coming to an understanding of Kiwawentoa technology, possibly even marrying together the technologies of the two races to make some sort of hyper-warp-drive.

Cale cut the instructions for the hyperdrive into sections that the machine shop printer could replicate. There didn’t seem to be any particular scaling limits on the technology beyond what was required to move larger objects, and Cale’s plan involved creating a portal with a diameter of less than a meter, just large enough to stick some cameras and sensors through. Doing so would still take what he was sure Ivy would term an unreasonable amount of exotic matter, but it was For Science after all.

He closed his eyes, took a breath, and emptied his mind, silencing the storm of emotions as his heartbeat slowed to a crawl. He opened his eyes slowly, and nearly jumped out of his shoes when he saw that Vedika had materialized across the table from him.

“Do you mind?” he asked irritably, gesturing her towards the door with a wrench.

She leaned on the table and summoned the holographic screens toward herself with her implants, turning them around to look through the various blueprints and diagrams, “Garage project?” She asked him.

“Yeah, something like that,” Cale said, stealing the screens back with hand gestures, “but I’m just doing it to clear my head, so if you don’t mind, can you please leave me be?”

“I’d like to help,” she said softly.

“You’re Improvisariat,” he scoffed, “I don’t really want your help right now.”

“I won’t talk or distract you,” she offered.

“Alright,” he relented with a sigh and shoved a set of diagrams at her, “Print those out and figure out how to connect them together.”

Vedika nodded and quietly went to work on assembling the components. She wordlessly handed him his printer jobs as they completed, and averted her eyes whenever he noticed her studying him. Together, the pair slowly began assembling the beginnings of the first human hyperspace window generator.

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