Chapter 8 – Downtime
10 Hours Later
Virtual reality — fictional, virtual worlds constructed entirely by computers, fed to an individual’s senses to make it seem like all but the truth.
Augmented reality — data and information overlaid over the true world, increasing productivity and enabling interactivity with one’s environment to levels never before thought possible.
Both of these technologies had taken the modern world by storm due to their incredible versatility. Grouped together under the moniker of “modified reality”, virtual and augmented reality both had been made viable and practical by numerous computational advances throughout the 21st century — but it wasn’t until First Contact occurred and Earth was exposed to the technology of the wider galaxy that it became possible to so heavily integrate modified reality into day-to-day life. Full-dive VR enabled people to fully immerse themselves in fantastical worlds of beauty and intrigue, while ocular AR implants allowed individuals to quickly and easily access information about both their own body and their surroundings. Between the two, it became possible to virtually visit any location on the planet from the safety of one’s living room, experience interactive stories more enthralling than any movie or video game could allow, translate foreign text and images immediately into the viewer’s own language, or even see the world through special lenses that gave everyone blue skin, or cat ears. The world had never before been so interactive.
Top of the line modified reality was expensive, of course — it was based largely on alien advances, and given that Earth was so technologically primitive compared to the rest of the galaxy, importing alien technology could be prohibitively expensive. But it didn’t stop modified reality as a whole from slowly rolling out to Earthians across the globe, as even the most basic Earthian versions of the technology could be enthralling. Over the past several decades, more conventional forms of media consumption such as movies, television, and video games had seen a slow and gradual decline; even standard travel and tourism was on the decline, as many people could experience nearly the same as the real thing from their homes. In a world growing increasingly dependent on advanced technology, many people worried that “lesser” forms of entertainment could die out entirely… but many more simply didn’t care.
Mote, for one, found himself in the first group.
The fact that he was an Electrotechnic didn’t help matters. Electrotechnics were known for accidentally shorting out delicate, non-shielded implants installed in their bodies, and Mote was no different, so the standard suite of AR technology was useless to him. Virtual Reality held little interest to him, either; he received more than enough visual and physical stimulation from traveling around the galaxy and using his powers to fight SERRCom’s enemies. Even movies and video games didn’t hold much water with him, as his role as the leader of the Eximius Vir left him little in the way of free time. What little time he had, he preferred to spend doing a relaxing activity that nonetheless helped to sharpen his mind: reading.
Mote’s room in SERRCom Headquarters was a practical library all unto itself, with bookshelves lining every inch of his walls not already occupied by his bed, desk, or closet. They contained hundreds of books, ranging from sci-fi novels to classic fiction to all kinds of non-fiction, particularly pertaining to military conflicts. Mote hadn’t yet had the chance to read many of them, contributing to a rather lengthy backlog that he tackled every chance he received. Current events meant that his already precious little free time was cut down even further, so when he found a couple hours to himself one Monday evening, he readily seized the opportunity to resume reading his current interest: “How the Apocalypse Saved the Planet”, an in-depth analysis of how the Chaos Energy Quake of 2089, which caused a multitude of severe natural disasters on Earth, ultimately led to the current state of the modern world. It had been multiple weeks since Mote last had a solid opening to take a crack at it, so he was more than ready to get to reading.
And so, naturally, when Kate barged into his room and demanded his immediate assistance… he was quite irate.
“Really, Kate? In the middle of my first free evening in weeks?!”
“Oh c’mon, you lazy douche bag,” Kate retorted as she waved off Mote’s concern. “Helping me would be way more helpful and interesting than reading some dumb book.”
“Reading ‘dumb books’ is the best way to both improve yourself and expand your knowledge. I’d think you should value that, as an Intellitechnic!”
“Bah, I don’t need to read to be smart, I already am smart. Duh! That’s how Intellitechnism works, dumbass!”
“Intelligence isn’t the same thing as knowledge. Again, you should know that.”
“Exactly! Having you help me will increase my knowledge.”
“Find someone else to help you.”
“I can’t get someone else, dumbass! You’re the only one who can activate the fucking armor!”
Mote scowled, his book still in hand as he turned his desk chair around to fully face Kate. “Do you really expect me to waste my time sitting around in your lab, just so you can study artifacts?”
“Aldredian artifacts! A fully intact piece of Aldredian powered armor, just waiting for me to tear into it and discover all of its nasty little secrets!” Kate began rubbing her hands together in anticipation. “Advanced shielding, the computer systems, inertial dampening tech, maybe even special material armor or hidden weapons, the possibilities are endless! Not to mention that sweet-ass storage mechanism. Imagine being able to store an entire fucking room of crap inside a little device that fits in the palm of your hand! We could be on the verge of a breakthrough here, Mote, just think about that! A whole technological revolution! I could even put your name on the eventual paper. Special thanks, of course.”
“No thanks. Find another way to turn the damn thing on.”
“Weren’t you listening, dumbass? There is no other way! I don’t know if the piece of junk has a thing for your limp-ass dick or what, but it only reacts to you, so move your ass and turn it on, damn it! You can even read your stupid book in the lab, if you like it so fucking much!”
“Like hell I’m going anywhere, especially with that attitude of yours.”
“Oh, of course, my ‘attitude’. It’s always my fucking attitude, isn’t it?!”
“Of course it is! Kate, you can’t possibly believe that normal people behave like you do!”
“That’s because I’m not normal, duh. I’m a member of the Eximius Vir! Not to mention one of the primary drivers of the ETAA’s research. Most of SERRCom’s newest ships were designed by yours truly, did you know?”
“That’s beside the point, and it’s the wrong way to approach this anyways. We Eximius Vir, practically speaking, are no more special or deserving than any other member of SERRCom. We are only Lieutenants. You have no right to talk down to others as you do, and I’d suggest that you stop.”
“’No more special’ my ass! I could run this whole show on my off days, and you know how few of those we get.”
“Exactly. Which is why I want you to get out of my damned room and give me some peace and quiet!”
“For fuck’s sake, Mote, you don’t even have to wear the fucking armor, you just have to bring it out of the storage mechanism and turn it on! Do I need to blow you or something to get you out of here?”
Mote grimaced. “Never suggest that again.”
“Well fuck you, too!” Kate readily flipped him off with both hands. “I was at least willing to offer something in exchange for your contributions, but now you get fuck-all!”
“I didn’t want anything to start with, aside from you leaving my room!”
“Oh yeah?! Fucking make me, bitch!”
“Guys? What’s going on?”
Mote and Kate both paused as they were — Mote with sparks wreathing his arms, and Kate mid-materializing an explosive device — and turned toward the door to Mote’s room, where Mark now stood. He glanced between Mote and Kate with a concerned look on his face.
“Mark!” Mote ceased generating electricity as he addressed Mark. “Can you please remove Kate from here?”
“Bullshit!” Kate exclaimed, “you can’t drag Mark into this, that’s not fair!”
“I don’t even know what ‘this’ is,” Mark commented. “Would either of you mind explaining?”
“She barged into my room and interrupted my reading time just to shout at me,” Mote replied.
“That’s only because you won’t help with the armor, damn it!” Kate countered. “If you would just spend five fucking minutes—”
“Okay, I think I see what’s going on here,” Mark said, cutting off Kate’s impassioned accusation. “So, Kate, the root of the issue is that you need a way to activate the armor, right?”
“Well, yeah. But Mote’s the only one who can!”
“Have you considered asking Danielle to help, instead? Just have her transform into Mote. Surely that should be enough?”
Kate’s face, previously scrounged up in fury, rapidly lightened. “Oh shit! You’re right, that’s a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?!”
“Will you finally leave me alone, now?” Mote questioned impatiently.
“Hell yeah. Your ass just went obsolete faster than a Chaos Drive!” Kate whipped around on her heel and charged out of the room, shoving past Mark in the process. “Make way for scientific progress! I’ve got breakthroughs to make!”
Mark watched her barrel through the hallways for a few moments before turning back to Mote. “Everything fine?”
“It was, before she showed up.” Mote sighed in irritation as he grabbed a bookmark and slapped it into his book. “Now I’m all worked up. Damn it. Thanks for getting her off my back, though.”
“It’s what I’m here for,” Mark replied with a smile. “…Well, the diffusing arguments part, not the… the getting rid of Kate part.”
“It’s not just me, right? She’s been way worse than usual, lately. Right?”
“I guess, but today was different. It’s not often that I see the two of you yelling at each other like that…” Mark gave Mote a concerned glance. “Are you sure you’re fine?”
Mote responded with another frustrated sigh. “What, do you think something’s wrong with me?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. But you have seemed somewhat stressed, lately. Ever since the new Chaos Quake last month.” Mark glanced down in thought. “Kate has too, sort of. Though for different reasons, I’m sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I said, really. Between your treatment of Austin, Spike, Twy, and Sky, and now this argument with Kate… and, knowing you, I’m sure what happened to Captain Feng was… well…”
“What I’m saying, is… if you need an ear, I’m here to listen.”
Mote held up a hand to massage his temples as he leaned back in his chair to stare at the ceiling. A moment later he leaned forward again, resting his elbows on his thighs as he took a deep breath. “…CSF-1’s past couple missions… they wouldn’t have happened without me.”
“Mm… you’re talking about your vision.” Mark nodded in understanding as he properly stepped into Mote’s room and closed the door behind him.
It was only at that moment that Mote realized that Mark was wearing an apron, and carried under his shoulder what looked to be a bag of flour and a mixing bowl. “Oh… damn it, Mark, you don’t have to sacrifice your time for me.”
“Hmm? Oh!” Mark glanced down at the objects before looking back at Mote. “No, it’s fine. Really. Cake doesn’t take long to make anyways, I’ve got time to talk.”
Mote passed him a doubtful glance. “You sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. The well-being of my friends will always matter more to me than my cooking.” Mark grinned. “After all, if you and Kate and Danielle weren’t around, then who’d eat the food I make?”
Mote snorted. “You mean aside from literally everyone else in SERRCom?”
“Everyone always says things like that, but I’m not that good of a cook… and it’s not why I’m here, anyways. You were about to say something before you got distracted, something about your vision?”
“Oh… right.” Mote’s expression clouded as he glanced way. “…You sure you don’t want to keep talking about cooking?”
“I suppose we could, if that’s what you really want.” Mark placed his bag of flour and mixing bowl on Mote’s desk and then leaned on the nearby bookshelf. “Is it?”
“I figured as much. What’s wrong, Mote? You aren’t usually this evasive.”
“Nothing is usual about what’s been happening lately. The new Chaos Quake, those new recruits, my so-called ‘vision’, the fact that my vision actually produced a positive result…” Mote scowled. “That’s not the bad part, though. If not for my vision, Captain Feng wouldn’t be an emotionless husk of his former self. Or, if not for those new recruits, then we would have been on that mission instead of Fireteam Alpha, and no one would’ve been hurt.”
“Are you really sure about that?”
“Of course I am. Everyone wants to say otherwise, but it’s just bullshit platitudes.”
“I heard that a Drakkar Faction Leader showed up on that mission.”
“One did, but so what? We can take on a Faction Leader. They can’t possibly be that different from regular Drakkars.”
“Everything I’ve heard points to exactly the opposite. The Faction Leaders are pretty unique. One-of-a-kind, even.”
“No one is that special. No one is completely invulnerable…”
Mark frowned. “…Is this what’s had you down? What happened to Feng?”
“…No. Not entirely.” Mote shook his head wearily. “Well, somewhat, yes. I do earnestly believe that we could have made a difference, if only we were on the mission instead of training a bunch of wannabes—”
“I know you aren’t too fond of them, but Austin, Spike, Sky, and Twy deserve better than your constant disdain.”
“…Right.” Mote glanced away. Figures that Mark would be on good terms with them. “…Well, they could all stand to work harder, Austin especially. But I suppose I shouldn’t pin the blame for this on them. I just don’t understand why the General thinks training them is more important than our missions.”
“CSF-1 is headed off on another mission in a couple days. You heard about that, right?”
“Yeah. Somewhere in Dead Space, right?”
“That’s right. And we aren’t going along, even after what happened last time we weren’t there.”
“Well, it is Dead Space. It’s not like we’d be of any use there, seeing as our powers wouldn’t work.”
“Still… it’s not right.”
“Why do you say that?”
Mote paused for a few moments as he stared at the ground in thought. “…Well, it’s just our place to be with CSF-1. That’s our job, right?”
“Hmm…” Mark nodded along. “I suppose. But like I said, we wouldn’t be of much use out there. We’d just be getting in the way.”
“Dead Space isn’t stopping the Black Suns from tagging along, and most of them are Chaotics.” Mote sighed wearily. “…I don’t know. I suppose there isn’t really a rational reason for why I want to be there. It just… it feels like I should be. My vision started this whole thing, after all. I should be there to see it through.”
“I thought you didn’t like that people put so much stock in your vision.”
“I don’t. But if they’re going to anyways, then I should at least be there to waste my time along with them.”
“Huh. I have to admit, Mote… I’m kind of surprised to hear you talking like this. Not in a bad way, of course!” Mark quickly added as Mote passed him an incredulous glance. “This just isn’t really like you. Most of the time when you talk about how something ‘should’ be, it’s in reference to SERRCom rules and guidelines, not your own gut.”
Mote stared at Mark for several moments before turning his attention to the floor. “…You’re right. This is all just nonsense. Forget I said anything.”
“What? No no, that’s not what I meant! I think it’s a good thing to hear you talking from the gut like this. You used to be a lot more candid when we were kids, but ever since we started our SERRCom training…”
“Yes, well… we’re role models now. The whole world knows about us, looks up to us. It’s no time for being candid; we represent SERRCom, and that comes with all of SERRCom’s rules and regulations. We wouldn’t be here without them.”
“Now that’s sounding a lot like the Mote I know.”
“I can’t tell if you’re saying that’s a good thing.”
Mark shrugged. “I’m not really sure. Though, I think there’s a reason that Danielle is the most popular of the four of us.”
“You mean because she bares her midriff everywhere we go?”
“Don’t be such a cynic. People like her because of her attitude. She’s friendly and genuine with everyone she meets, even when they aren’t pleased to see her. She doesn’t adhere to the rules like a robot, and even if that’s just because she forgets some of them, it makes her far more approachable to the average person.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is that the rules aren’t as important as you like to claim. Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut.”
“Sounds like the route to insubordination. Or worse, to Kate’s attitude.”
“Didn’t I just tell you not to be so cynical? Why are you taking potshots at Danielle and Kate, anyways? We’ve known each other for so long… I thought we were friends?”
Mote huffed. “…I didn’t say we weren’t. But that won’t stop me from getting frustrated with them when they act out of line.”
Mark sighed wearily. “I suppose I should’ve expected you to say that.”
“It’s the truth. One of these days, Kate’s going to get slapped with a court martial. The only reason it hasn’t happened already is because the researchers over at the ETAA love her brain too much.”
“Well… I can’t really argue with that. She’s always been this way, though.”
“That’s not a good reason for her to keep being this way.”
“I could say the same to you.”
“You are not comparing my attitude to Kate’s right now.”
“Maybe not completely, but you’re both stubborn, sometimes to a fault. I hope you can at least realize that much.”
“Tch.” Mote tore his attention away from Mark again, finding increased interest in the bookshelf to his right. He wanted to argue, but doing so would only prove Mark’s point.
“Anyways…” Mark retrieved his flour and bowl from Mote’s desk before backing toward the door. “I’ve probably wasted enough of your time. I’ll leave you to your reading—”
“MOTE! Mote, you still in there?!”
The door slammed open, ramming full-force into Mark as Kate strode through the doorway. As a Duratechnic, Mark felt no pain and barely flinched at all as the nob slammed straight into his crotch; instead, the door immediately rebounded and whacked Kate in the face, prompting her to grasp her forehead in pain.
Mote scowled. “The hell are you doing back here?”
“Oh, you are here!” Danielle peeked around Kate and waved at Mote. “Hey! Watcha reading?”
“Right now, nothing, because you all keep interrupting me!”
“What are you doing here, again?” Mark questioned.
“Argh… fuck! …Oh, right!” Kate shook her head to clear her thoughts and then pointed dramatically at Mote. “We still need you!”
“You what?” Mote responded incredulously, and then turned toward Danielle. “Weren’t you supposed to help?”
“I tried…” Danielle frowned. “I turned into you, but the armor didn’t work.”
“Are you sure your transformation was correct?”
“Well… I’ve never seen you naked, so…”
“And you never will,” Mote quickly responded, his brow furrowed in mild embarrassment.
“Damn, you really need to lighten up,” Kate replied. “Probably get laid, too. Maybe that would help with that stick up your ass!”
“Maybe you should take your own advice,” Mote shot back.
“Wha—! That’s—! I’ll have you know that—!”
“We’re getting distracted,” Mark cut in before turning to the two women. “Danielle, did your transformation really not work?”
“It didn’t…” Danielle answered with a sigh. “Er, well, I did look just like Mote, but I couldn’t activate the armor, if that’s what you mean…”
“Which means that, unfortunately, we need the real deal.” Kate beckoned impatiently for Mote to follow her. “C’mon already!”
“I already told you earlier, I’m not doing a damn thing,” Mote insisted.
“Sure, but this time Sarah told me to tell you that she ordered you to come along. And she’s the second most senior researcher in the whole damn ETAA, so that’s got to count for something!”
“We aren’t part of the ETAA’s chain of command. I’m not, at least. So her orders mean nothing.”
“Oh yeah? Well how about the fact that General Lead ordered us to investigate the armor? Without you, we can’t do that. So Sarah’s orders basically have the same weight as the General’s.”
“That’s a load of bullshit, and you know it.”
“She might actually be onto something, Mote,” Mark commented.
“That’s right, dumbass!” Kate remarked smugly. “Do you really want to drag the General into this? Because I’d love to go get him to yell at you.”
Mote growled, but didn’t offer a proper response. As much as he hated to admit it, she did have a point — if he was truly the only one who could activate the armor, then it was only a matter of time before General Lead inevitably ordered him to comply. And as much as Mote disliked caving to Kate’s demands, he disliked the idea of having to be directly ordered by the General even more.
“…Fine,” Mote eventually conceded. “…But I’m bringing my book with me.”
“You should’ve just done that from the start, you insufferable bastard,” Kate huffed. “My time is precious, you know! I can’t be wasting it on you all the fucking time!”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure. Now let’s just get this over with, please.”
“Oh just you fucking wait, I’m going to have you running fucking laps in the thing! Show you to waste my damn time. Tch.”
Mote simply shook his head in resignation as he stepped past Mark and Danielle out of his room. He had practically lost his argument with Kate; continuing to butt heads with her would be purely unproductive at this point, so he simply resigned himself to her constant complaints as he followed her through the hallways of the base. This armor had better be worth it…