Chapter 17 – A New Day, A New Year

5 Days Later

— Monday, October 3, AD 2129 —

“Damn it, late on the first day of classes… seriously. Me, late! I can’t believe this…”

Pierce grumbled to himself as he rushed up the stairs of Caltech’s engineering building. The clocks read just past eleven in the morning, and while he had awoken early — just like usual — he had vastly overestimated how much free time he actually had in the morning. Originally, he had planned to simply use his superspeed to reach his first class on time after spending the morning running and working out, but everywhere he walked that morning, there were other people around him. Using his superspeed when people could see him would obviously blow his cover, so he had begrudgingly limited himself to a normal walking pace — and thus, found himself late to class.

“At least it’s just a dumb elective…” he muttered as he reached the third floor and approached the door to the classroom. With an irritated sigh, he reached for the doorknob and quietly opened the door, at which point he stepped through and closed the door behind him as subtly as he could.

“Ah, Mr. Bradley! Just the man I was waiting for!”

“…Huh?” Pierce stopped in his tracks, eyes wide as he stared at the professor standing at the front of the room. Not much about the man stood out; he had an average height, a plain appearance, and a slightly pudgy build. Pierce knew the man was one of the engineering professors, but Pierce had yet to take any of his classes until today. So how does he know my name already…?

“Come on, sit, sit!” The professor tapped the table near him, in front of one of the room’s only empty seats. Tentatively, Pierce approached the seat and slowly sat down, at which point the professor turned toward the other twenty or so students in the class. “I’m sure you all already know Mr. Bradley, here. Luckily for you all, he has just acquired a wealth of new knowledge and experience that is certain to enrich our time in this class.”

“Uh, excuse me, Prof?” Pierce slowly raised his hand; when the professor glanced toward him, he continued, “I’m not really sure what you’re talking about. Are you sure you got the right guy?”

“Of course I am. …You did spend the summer on a different planet, didn’t you?”

Pierce momentarily glanced to the side as murmurs filled the room. “…Well, yeah,” he eventually responded, “but what does that have to do with the class?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what class you’ve signed up for. You remembered to show up, so surely you also remember that this is a class on future tech!”

“…Ooooh… right…” Pierce nodded as he finally recalled the class’s name in the class registry: “Future Tech: An Overview of Advanced Technology of Extraterrestrial Origins”. Well, shit. I signed up for this class since I figured it would be a walk in the park after going off-world myself, but I didn’t expect to be turned into a damn guest speaker. Prof better not try and make me a TA later on…

The professor smiled in response to Pierce’s apparent recognition. “I’m glad we’re on the same page, then. Now, Mr. Bradley, if you don’t mind, can you give us a quick overview of what you did while off-world?”

“Uh. Well…” Pierced shrugged noncommittally. “You know, I just studied a spacecraft, that’s all.”

“What kind of spacecraft?” asked a female voice from the side of the room opposite of Pierce.

“It was just, you know…” He began answering with a disinterested, flat tone, but then his ears perked up when he realized that the voice sounded familiar. A quick glance to the side confirmed his suspicion — sitting across the room from him was Andra, the girl he had run into in the gym a week ago. As soon as he made this discovery, he cleared his throat and straightened his posture before turning toward the other students in the classroom with a broad smirk on his face. “It was a civilian courier craft, complete with all of the standard spacecraft equipment. Energy shields, anti-grav, inertial dampeners, FTL tech, the whole works. And I got a chance to look at everything.”

“Which of those systems seemed most advanced to you?” The professor questioned, drawing Pierce’s attention back to him.

Most advanced? That’s hard to say, they’re all pretty incredible. I guess I’d go with the FTL tech — ah, FTL stands for ‘faster than light’, in case anyone didn’t know.” Pierce passed a smug glance toward the rest of the class before continuing, “the FTL tech I got to see was a Chaos Drive.”

“Ah, yes, Chaos Drives!” The professor clapped his hands as he turned toward the rest of the class. “A perfect segue into today’s topic: Chaos Energy, and what it means for engineers and new technology! Now, as I’m sure you all know, Chaos Energy is a sort of nebulous energy that allows for many kinds of physics-defying feats. Strictly speaking, it isn’t truly energy in the technical sense, but all the same, it can…”

At that point, Pierce began zoning out; nothing the professor was talking about was new to him, due to his time with Brikén aboard her ship. However, with his seating position at the front of the class and so near the professor, he couldn’t simply doze off, as he would typically do when a class began to bore him. Instead, the following hour passed at a snails pace, as Pierce’s focus snapped between trying not to fall asleep and occasionally answering the professor’s questions about his knowledge regarding Chaos Energy-based technology. The realization that he shared the classroom with Andra was motivation enough for him to weather the first half-hour of the class, but by the time the hour was up, his confident smirk had faded into a small smile, put on only to suppress the aura of boredom that would have otherwise overtaken him.

“…and with that, I’ll leave you all to continue on your days. Class dismissed.”

“Alright,” Pierce muttered, springing to his feet and turning toward the door in one fluid motion.

Before he could take a step, however, the professor had approached and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Bradley, if you don’t mind,” he began, an eager grin plastered across his face, “I’d like to hear more about what you’ve learned. You say you’ve had a first-hand look at not just a Chaos Drive, but also energy shield generators, and anti-gravity generators? Not to mention inertial dampeners? Those technologies are, quite simply, incredible, and I’d love to hear your insights about them!”

“Uh, well…” Pierce regarded the professor with an uneasy look. Ah, shit, how do I get out of this one? Wait Out the corner of his eye, he spotted Andra pass a surreptitious glance in his direction just before leaving the room. Immediately, he cleared his throat, shook off the Professor, and made for the room’s exit himself. “Sorry, Prof,” he shouted over his shoulder, “I’d love to chat, but I’m afraid I have something important to tend to. See ya!”

Without waiting to see or hear the professor’s response, Pierce charged out of the room and rapidly scanned the hallway he now stood in. A moment later, he spotted Andra’s retreating form, and began jogging after her. “Hey! Andra, right?”

“Hmm?” She stopped and glanced behind herself. “Oh, Pierce! Hi! Are you late for something…?”

“Oh, no, just… stretching my legs a bit.” Pierce made a brief running motion with his arms as he came to a stop in front of her. “All that sitting around can make you restless, you know?”

“Yeah, too true…” She sighed. “At least it’s only an hour.”

Pierce nodded in agreement. “You’re right, those longer classes really are the worst. But, hey, if you’re taking this class, that means you’re a Mech. E., right? That’s cool!”

“Ah, hehe,” she briefly giggled before responding, “well, I’m actually a Chem. E. But this class satisfies elective requirements for all of the engineering majors, so I figured, why not? Learning about this kind of otherworldly technology could be fun!”

Pierce snorted. “The Prof sure seems to agree.”

Andra frowned. “Do you not like talking about what you know…?”

“Oh, I do, just not in a stuffy classroom setting. I’d prefer chatting in a park, or on a walk in the city, or…” He paused as his stomach let off a low grumble.

“…Or over lunch?” Andra finished with an amused giggle.

“Well it is that time of day,” Pierce replied with a smirk. “Don’t suppose you’d like to go grab something from the cafe?”

“Sure!” she cheerfully responded. “I wanted to ask you more about your summer, actually. Uh, assuming you don’t mind, that is.”

“Of course not.” Pierce waved off her concern as the two began walking down the third floor steps of the engineering building. “Talking over lunch sounds like my idea of a good time. Especially if I get to talk to someone like you.”

“Aw… I’m not really sure I deserve that…”

“Oh c’mon, you seem like a hella cool person to me. You want to join the track team, that’s pretty cool. And you’re way ahead of me on taking electives, too. My first term s’more year was filled entirely with core. That was a real piece of work…”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that sophomore-level core isn’t very, uh… fun.

“It really isn’t. None of core is. But, hey, enough about boring classes, let’s talk about something more interesting.”

“More interesting, huh?” Andra echoed as the two stepped out of the engineering building to the outside world. Sunlight and clear skies blanketed the campus, which itself was host to groups of students, post-docs, and professors alike as everyone went about getting lunch. Pierce and Andra soon joined the flow, walking down the pathways towards the main campus cafeteria. “The campus seems a lot more lively than usual,” Andra eventually remarked.

“Yeah, it’s always like this on the first day of the year,” Pierce replied as he stretched his arms. “Same for the first day of winter or spring term, though a little less so. Everyone always feels fresh and recharged after a break.”

“That is true. I had a fun summer… though not as fun as yours, I’m sure.”

“Ha!” Pierce smirked in amusement. “That really depends.”

“What? Did you not like visiting an alien planet?”

“I never said that. It was surreal, getting to actually leave Earth and see fuckin’ aliens with my own eyes, and even talk with them. Hell, I spent the whole summer learning from an alien.”

“How does that even work? Did you have to learn their language?”

“Nope. SERRCom gave me RTA implants.” Pierce pointed at his ear. “They translate alien languages into English in real-time. It’s hella useful.”

“Wow, it certainly sounds like it,” Andra replied, her eyes wide with interest. “I’ve heard of RTA implants myself, but I heard they were crazy expensive. Did SERRCom pay for you to get some?”

“Yep! Pretty nice, huh?”

“Yeah! I didn’t know SERRCom could be so generous, though I guess they have to, if they wanted their outreach program to work. Still, though. That’s a thousand free sets of implants they had to have given out.”

“Sounds like you know a lot about the outreach program, huh?”

“Ah, ha ha, yeah. I applied for it myself, actually. Though I didn’t make it…”

“That’s totally fine. There were only a thousand slots, as you said; it was basically luck that I got picked.”

“I suppose…” Andra sighed before glancing over at Pierce again. “Still… I just can’t wrap my head around this whole program. It’s really nice, for sure, but, like… what does SERRCom get out of it?”

“I dunno. Exposure?” Pierce shrugged. “Who knows why SERRCom does what it does. I mean, have you heard about that whole Chaotic conscription business? That’s crazy, right?”

“Not as much as what happened in New York and Texas. You saw that news, right? About the big ship over New York? And then the fight in Texas?”

I didn’t just hear the news, I was there, Pierce mused, though I guess I can’t actually say that. Not that I would want to, anyways, since I didn’t even get to destroy that damn robot. Hmph.

“…Pierce?”

“Ah, sorry. Yeah, I saw those fights. Looked pretty cool to me.”

“I guess… but the fight in Texas destroyed a lot of homes, you know?”

“…Well… yeah…”

“I don’t know about you… but knowing that Chaotics can cause that much damage… that’s not exactly comforting.”

“Oh c’mon, did you actually watch the fight? Most of the damage was caused by that stupid EA guy and his robot. The idiots he was fighting didn’t cause nearly as much destruction as he did.”

“I guess. Maybe, that’s… no.” She shook her head and looked away. “Nevermind.”

Pierce passed her a curious glance. “What? Something wrong?”

“No, it’s just…” She returned his glance, though Pierce thought he could see unease in her eyes. “You had to go through SERRCom for the outreach program, right? What did you think of your interactions with them?”

“Huh? Uh, well… not a whole lot, really.” Pierce shrugged. “They were pretty hands-off about the whole thing. Maybe a little too hands-off, really, since there wasn’t a single SERRCom person on Ainminthalus with us. That was a real pain in the ass when the Quake hit.”

“Oh… you were on a different planet when that happened, huh? Was it bad?”

“…Yeah…”

“How bad? Not much happened here on Earth, but I heard things can get pretty bad elsewhere in the galaxy, where they actually use Chaos Energy-based technology everywhere.”

Pierce pursed his lips and turned his attention forward, softly clutching at the side of his torso as the two finally stepped through the front doors of the campus cafeteria and began navigating toward the long lunch lines. “…Let’s just say that it was bad, and leave it at that.”

“Oh… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine, you couldn’t have known. What’s with your question about SERRCom, though? It sounds like you don’t trust them.”

She passed an uneasy glance his way. “Do you?”

“They’re a giant interstellar military with minimal oversight, and can apparently get away with conscripting civilians without anyone complaining,” Pierce drawled. “Of course I don’t trust them.”

“That makes sense. I guess I agree with you there. But at the same time… it’s weird.” Andra paused for a moment to look up at the menu before continuing, “my mom has a job where she interacts with SERRCom a lot. She’s a project lead for one of the contractor companies that SERRCom hires to work on their domestic construction projects, and I hear a lot of… weird stuff.”

“Domestic projects? You mean like that dam up near San Fran?”

“Yeah! That’s actually her primary project. How did you know?”

“I didn’t, but I’m from the Bay Area, so I’m well aware of that damn… uh, dam. Heh. I’ve also heard some weird things about it, though they’re mostly rumors.” He turned to face her. “What do you know about the dam?”

“Not much, actually. My mom apparently had to sign an NDA about it.”

“An NDA? For a dam?”

“That’s what I thought! That’s weird, right?”

“Sure sounds weird to me, though you’re the daughter of a contractor, here. What else have you heard?”

“Well… sometimes my mom will complain about SERRCom leaving her in the dark about the purpose of certain project specs, or otherwise making her work around ‘black boxes’, so to speak.”

So they ARE hiding something, Pierce thought to himself as Andra looked away to put in her lunch order. I knew that stuff I found was weird. Though I didn’t expect to confirm this through Andra, of all people… He then stepped forward to order a burger for himself before turning back to Andra and questioning, “do you know what kind of tech your mom has to work around? Maybe, I dunno. Electromagnets, or something?”

“I don’t know the actual tech, myself, sorry. Are there really rumors about electromagnets…?”

Pierce shrugged. “Hey, they are rumors. Rumors can get pretty weird.”

“Yeah…”

“Anyways, it sure sounds to me like something nefarious is going on.”

“See, I don’t know if I’d go as far as ‘nefarious’,” Andra countered. “I agree that there’s probably some kind of ulterior motive, I don’t know why else SERRCom would be making it so hard to build a dam. But, even if there is an ulterior motive, the dam is still ultimately a project that’s good for the public. Right? And SERRCom is doing this all over the planet. Building sea walls, dams, anything to help the cities and countries that were impacted the most by the disasters of ‘88 and ‘89. Even if all of those projects have ulterior motives, they’re still good for the people. So as much as I don’t trust SERRCom, they are at least doing good here on Earth.”

“Mm… I guess so…”

“…Ah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lecture you about this, I can shut up now.”

“No, no, it’s fine. This is pretty interesting stuff to hear about,” Pierce remarked. Especially since it can help me get to the bottom of that dam. With this information, I’ll be able to bust SERRCom’s secrets wide open. I just need to investigate a little more…

“Still, it’s probably boring to hear me speculate about this kind of stuff…”

“Hey, I disagree, but if you want to change the subject, I’m cool with that, too. Is there something else you wanted to talk about?”

“Well… I know you said you don’t want to talk about the Quake, but what about before that? What was it like, living on… what was the planet’s name? Ain…minlus?”

“Ainminthalus, and sure, I’d be happy to talk about that part. The main city I stayed in, Alus, was hella cool, with trees and greenery everywhere. Some of those skyscrapers looked like they were trees themselves. Oh, and the rings! You ever think about what it would be like to stand on a planet with rings? They’re like giant arches in the sky! It was hella fucking cool…”

Pierce then continued describing the scenery of Ainminthalus and his experiences on the planet as he and Andra paid for their lunch and began eating, whiling away the next hour with friendly conversation.