“Thank you, commander, for taking the time to come see me,” says Para, looking up from a gently glowing tablet as you step into the chamber that could be considered the spiritual epicenter of the entire Initiative.
Her office is elegantly ordered, with far fewer blinking lights and datafeed screens than most would expect, though you’re not surprised, given your years in a leadership role. Far more important than having all the information is having the right information when it comes to decision-making that potentially affects entire populations, planets, even systems.
“You’re aware of the PIPES program, I’m sure,” she continues, and motions evenly toward the chair near her own. “Have a seat, and let me mention a few aspects of extraversal exploration that have been on my mind, especially since we started using portals.”
You’re far too professional to be star-struck, but you can’t help feeling a little excitement as you make your way to sit where she indicated. She is, after all, the visionary behind the entire direction of the Initiative. The Array, Sieve, and Bell-1 are living testaments to her immense technical prowess, and her commitment to doing the right thing is evident across the organization from top to bottom.
As you sit, she looks you in the eye earnestly, and says, “You’re one of the longest-serving and most experienced agents here, and I know your commitment runs deep. When this was all a dream and it was just myself and Bell working on the first prototypes, it started, as I’m sure you’ve heard rumored, because I lost something very dear to me. Someone, actually. Finding her was an easy goal, something to bury myself in, no moral dilemmas, just simple– figure out what happened, where she is, and how to bring her back.
“Now, there’s a lot more going on. Unexplained phenomena keep cropping up more and more frequently. We’re interacting with cultures that are often radically different than our own, making tough calls in short timeframes, and now, even sending agents on risky missions into who knows what kind of environments using methods we don’t fully understand. It’s turned into something much bigger than the search-and-rescue mission that it once was. I trust that everyone who is a part of this is involved for the right reasons. I trust that they do the best they can when they are out there representing the Initiative. But before this thing gets out of control, I need some honest feedback from our top people about the big picture. You up for that?”
You nod with a look of consideration, “I am.”
“Good. First of all, the continued uptick in weird occurrences. To be fair, it was already trending that way even way back when the Sieve was just a prototype. But we’ve been at this for a while now, and the rate of growth hasn’t changed much. We haven’t isolated ourselves as a variable, though, so it’s possible that we could be slowing it, not affecting it at all, or even accelerating it. I want you to consider that when you think about the size and scope of the Initiative. Some things are worth doing, even blind, but how much uncertainty is too much?
“The next issue is about our impact on other places. We seem to be headed in a direction that implies that it’s okay to change things wherever we find ourselves, as long as they’re for the better. But it’s also clear that we can’t just go to the outer valences here in Synthex and casually drop off core-world tech, regardless of how many lives it would improve. The other Verses are even less similar to Delphi than those worlds. I wonder if we need to establish some boundaries about the kinds of things we are willing to get involved in.”
“Finally, thinking about PIPES specifically, some of these portals we’ve discovered lead to extremely hostile environments. The agents who take on these missions do so willingly, and we protect them to the best of our abilities. A little more on the steps we’re taking regarding protection in a minute. For now, though, I want you to think about whether, if these environments are dangerous to us, does it also mean that our environment, and ourselves, are potentially dangerous to them? Say we found beings made of ionic crystals– a simple canteen full of water would become a deadly weapon. Handling our potential impact versus preserving our own agents’ well-being is another point of contention.”
“I want you to consider those things when you help me with this decision,” she says, to which you reply with a thoughtful nod.
“Are you familiar with VOLSTAR?” she asks, pausing only briefly to gauge your facial reaction of mild uncertainty before moving on. “Not specifically, huh? They’re a manufacturing conglomerate that specializes in ceramics. Most people would probably refer to them as a ‘Foundry,’ but that’s not quite accurate—a foundry uses metals as its primary materials. The technical term for a ceramic production facility is ‘Refractory.’ And this refractory on Cnocc VI has created something that’s pretty awesome.”
With a few deft presses on the screen of her device, Para loads a short vid of a person in a suit of armor amidst a massive blaze. Interestingly, all of its constituent parts, save the reflective visor, appear to be made of the same light matte grey material, from the standard protective plates to the tubes and chambers of the rebreather system, even the communication antenna. The figure swivels its head around at the fire, gives a thumbs up, and you hear their voice crackle through the comm channel, “This is fine.”
Your eyebrow raises almost imperceptibly, because typical Hazard Protection Equipment is far less uniform in composition.
Once again, Para demonstrates her ability to read your expression effortlessly, giving a tiny approving nod, before she speaks. “You see it. That’s right, the entire suit is made of ceramic. This idea isn’t a new one; even hand smithing on pre-tech worlds uses gloves covered in clayscale for applications that require extremely high temperature variances. What is new is that VOLSTAR has developed it into a complete, enclosed system. The plastics traditionally employed in life support would have melted before they got within a hundred meters of that fire. Metal plating that protects against blunt force becomes a liability in environments with significant EM charge. Void and vacuum affect different tensile strengths differently and can lead to rupture. ”
She pauses a moment, allowing you to process the implications of such a development. Many of the places that the Array has detected as potentially important have been non-starters because they also register as overly hostile environments. The VOLSTAR suit would make access to those locations possible. It would definitely make taking PIPES portals much safer too.
“Exactly,” she says, almost preternaturally predicting your train of thought, “the gains are unbelievably huge if the VOLSTAR system works, and, trust me, if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t have wasted your valuable time today. Rigorous testing has been performed and verified, and manufacturing is about to begin. Which brings us to why you’re here.”
“Large-scale production is still a few cycles out, so there’s time for a key improvement to be made. Unfortunately, there’s neither time nor room for every upgrade I have considered to be added to the suit. And I wonder if any of the potential add-ons might do more harm than good. So, considering your thoughts on the issues I brought up earlier, which one of these devices do you think will serve us best? Or, if you think none of them are useful or appropriate, I could probably shorten the delivery timeframe for the basic suit with some well-aimed vidmessages.”
Para hands you the tablet, and says, “Take as much time as you need to look these over. Let me know when you’ve made your choice.”
Will you choose:
A: The Environmental Contingency System, a set of countermeasures that can be deployed for temporary control of the immediate surroundings in the case that the suit encounters something too drastic for even its own innate capabilities to handle? We don’t want to cause harm, but self-preservation sometimes necessarily results in damage. We count on our people to make beneficial decisions on missions, and should give them the best tools to perform that role.
B: The Integrated Neural Network, a cutting edge set of sensors, microprocessors, and heads-up display features inside the Luceramic faceplate that make collecting and reporting data faster, easier, and more efficient? The Initiative started as a missing persons case; collecting data is the logical means to that conclusion. Also, scientific inquiry is by nature neutral; it’s completely possible to study something without actively changing it.
C: The Synaptic Empathy Emitter, a harmonic oscillator that measures biological frequencies and adjusts its output to a spectrum of tones and radiation that allow for more fluid communication with other living creatures? The Initiative has always been about creating a network across the Verses. Peace, trade, and technology are the result of diplomatic efforts first and foremost, and working toward a better life for every sentient being is morally correct.
D: To pass on the chance to upgrade in favor of getting the basic suit into action as soon as possible, and at the lowest cost, by onboarding nothing extra? Using a design that is as hermetic and nonreactive as possible best exemplifies your belief about what the Initiative should do. Our people are talented and insightful, and their decisions are the heart and soul of what we are. Trusting them to carry out the vision defines and refines the vision itself.
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[Bell-1’s Archival Notes: New agents who have read and responded to this narrative of interaction between the commander and Para tend to accurately predict the eventual decision. In the most recent session, 6 responded that they believed the commander would suggest the Synaptic Empathy Emitter, 6 responded that no upgrades was the likely decision. 4 responded that the ECS was the recommended tech, and 2 that the Integrated Neural Network was the suggestion that the commander made. Given that the entire line of VOLSTAR upgrades are now available, and the classified nature of the production agreement, there is no “wrong answer” to this question. It is included on the intake examination for the purpose of psychological assessment in order to best place incoming personnel where they will be most comfortable, and therefore, most effective. A historical account of the actual events follows.]
The commander took several decimes in silent contemplation, occasionally swiping a finger across the datascreen in either direction, as they deeply considered the philosophical implications of each of the potential upgrades. It was clear that Para’s concerns had been understood, and that they were invested in making a decision that would not only serve the immediate needs of the Initiative at the moment, but also set a precedent for the standards and practices of the future.
In spite of the length of the decision making process, however, when they finally faced Para, ready to deliver their judgment, it was with a look of determination and newfound understanding. “Para,” began the commander, “I’ve strongly considered what you had to say about our direction. Honestly, participation in the Initiative has been a whirlwind, with more to learn and experience than a single being ever could, even now, in our early stages. Moving forward, it’s important not to lose sight of that massive scope, and to make the decisions that best prepare us for more decisions, instead of making the ones that are best in immediate impact.”
Para gave a single appreciative nod as she pressed her fingertips together, “Good plan, Commander. Say more.”
“The biggest pitfalls that we have to navigate in that regard are being careless about our interactions for our own benefit, and being too reliant on statistics without a meaningful paradigm for how to interpret them. So, I can’t in good conscience recommend that we immediately equip the VOLSTAR with the ECS or the INN.”
“Reasonable criticisms,” said Para, “so what about the other two options?”
“There are upsides and downsides to both. I genuinely think that the best way to solve the mysteries of your missing person and the growth in unexplainable events is by building a network. Onboarding a device that facilitates communication could go a long way in that regard, because communication is absolutely key to this operation. On the other hand, there’s a chance that it could be read as untrustworthy or even coercive if individuals we made friendly contact with later found out that we had help from a machine that read their biosignatures.”
“As for the basic unit, the major upside is the timeframe. People are jumping into PIPES right now; the sooner we can protect them, the better. The suit serves its basic purpose well– if that video you showed me made it onto the freeweb, there’s no doubt it would become a viral stillcap overnight– ‘This is fine.’ in the middle of a huge fire– if I hadn’t been in your office, I would have laughed out loud! At the same time, not committing is a kind of commitment in itself. We’ll find immediate uses for the basic VOLSTAR setup, but as we continue to grow, we are going to have to choose.”
One corner of Para’s mouth raised in a grin and her eyes sparkled mirthfully. “Commander, you’ve exceeded my expectations. Finding not one, but two correct answers to a difficult question is a feat. I agree with your assessment about our two lines of inquiry; a network is going to be absolutely crucial now that we have not just one, but six whole Verses to comb through for answers. We do want to earn that network earnestly. I’m not a hundred percent on the idea that using tech to communicate better is untrustworthy, but I’ll take your comments under advisement, because some societies might see it that way.”
“For now, you’ve given me plenty of reasons to think that VOLSTAR needs to hit the gravtrack as soon as possible, and, to be perfectly honest, we’re a little thinner than we would like to be on joules to pay for upgrades at the moment. Let’s go with your recommendation to onboard nothing extra and get these agents suited up as soon as possible. Thank you for your time, and for what I knew would be your thoughtful and honest feedback. If there’s nothing else for me?”
The commander popped up out of their chair, shaking their head no. “No, ma’am, nothing important.”
Para replied, “That sounds like there might be something that’s not important.”
The commander grinned before taking their leave, saying, “It’s just that if it ever gets to a point where it feels like the whole world is burning around us–”
“Hmm?” Para intoned quizzically.
“Just remember. ‘This is fine.’”
Junior agents in offices around the rim of the Central Hub still hear legends of one unusual day in the early times when howls of laughter came pealing out from Para’s private chamber.
[SHK-E Analysis: Choosing not to add any extra systems saves the Para Initiative some much needed ENERGY. The suit came to be known as VOLSTAR-1, 1 being shorthand for “onboarding nothing extra”, for when mission control deemed accessories were not worth the cost in joules.]
KNOWLEDGE: Very Good
Para Initiative Reputations: Interventionist
Para Initiative Inventory:
Oystersand’s Illustrated Arcana
Notes on Xavi and 1086
Untranslated Copy of Dear People
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