Chapter 55 – A Researcher’s Work
A clinical silence filled the main tech lab aboard Opportunity, interspersed with the soft clicks of cables and adapters being hooked up to military hardware and plugged into a computer. With one cable in hand, Kirstin holed up in the back of the lab, sitting cross-legged on the floor with her laptop on her lap and a set of powered armor to her side. While waiting for some computational analysis to run on another project, she had decided to tinker with CSF-1’s Chaos Armor in an effort to draw out even larger efficiency gains than ever before. She wasn’t sure if she could squeeze out much more at this point, but she always found tinkering to be a good distraction from the world, so she decided to try anyways.
As Kirstin quickly scanned the armor’s parameter readout on her laptop screen, some shuffling noises from the side of the room briefly drew her attention to Sarah, who was at work studying the Aldredian powered armor. Without Mote’s presence, the armor stood as still and inactive as a statue, but Sarah seemed to think that she could find a way to pierce its gene lock. I wonder if that’s really possible… Kirstin thought to herself as she looked down at her laptop again. I guess it’d be cool if it was. I wonder if Sarah would let me take a look… probably not—
The door to the lab suddenly snapped open, startling Kirstin to such an extent that her laptop clattered to the hard, tiled flooring. As she scrambled to pick it back up, she briefly glanced back at the doorway, finding none other than her father standing in it.
“Ach…” Scott let out a deep breath as he stepped into the room and threw his suit jacket onto a nearby table. He then began undoing his tie as he looked around the room. “Ah, Sarah, Kirstin. Thought I’d find ye lasses here.”
“So you decided to interrupt our quiet work, then, hmm?” Sarah questioned, albeit with a tone of levity.
“I just thought I’d check in,” Scott replied. Kirstin watched as his gaze dropped to the Aldredian armor, and a small smirk played on his face. “Studying the armor more, I see.”
“There are just too many secrets in this thing to let it be,” Sarah declared. “All we need to do is break the gene lock… if we can do that, then the possibilities are endless!”
“Figuratively speaking, of course. But this armour seems to run entirely on Chaos Energy. And it’s not like most Chaos Armours, that just turn Chaos Energy into electricity — no, this armour actually runs directly on Chaos Energy. If we can replicate that, then we can basically solve the power concerns of the entire galaxy!”
“That does sound promising!” Scott nodded enthusiastically, and then looked over at Kirstin. “And what’s this? Is that one of CSF-1’s armors?”
“Uh… y-yeah…” Kirstin replied, her gaze averted from Scott’s as she fidgeted uncomfortably. “I-I just thought that, um, th-that I’d try to… increase the, uh, e-efficiency some more…”
“Really? Good. Hmm, what about those Dreadnought coordinates? Have ye found anything interesting lately?”
“…I-I’m still, um, l-looking…”
“I see. There are a lot of them, sae it’s expected… I knae the coordinate cache didn’t come with any descriptors, but our top priority right nae should be finding that infection ‘cure’ that was mentioned on that space station ye visited earlier this month. Focus on that, if ye can.”
“R-right…” Kirstin shrunk down, futilely attempting to hide behind her laptop screen. As if I wasn’t already focusing on the important stuff…
“Our ‘top priority’, huh?” Sarah questioned, “is that from the Command Meeting?”
“Ach…” Scott sighed warily. “Yep.”
“What’s with that reaction?” Sarah replied coyly, “was the meeting no fun?”
“Since when are meetings ever fun?” Scott shook his head as he took a seat at one of the lab benches, facing Sarah but still angled such that Kirstin could see his face. “Command Meetings especially… I always forget how stressful they can be.”
“Well, it is High Command. I can only imagine the kind of pressure you’d feel from being in a room with all of them.”
“Aye, nae throw in Shepherd and Markovic’s rivalry, Shepherd and Lead’s rivalry, all of High Command’s insistence on getting in the way of research…”
“What’s that mean?”
“The research intae the Dreadnought coordinate cache is…” Scott passed Kirstin a sideward glance before shaking his head and looking back to Sarah. “Well, apparently it’s more dangerous than we expected.”
I could have told you that… Kirstin mused, her run-in with the Nanocreatures aboard the derelict space station briefly coming to mind.
“I don’t think anyone expected it wouldn’t be dangerous,” Sarah said, “what’s different now?”
“Apparently, the danger is on a whole ‘nother level than what we expected. That’s all I can really say. Either way, the ongoing search is bein’ restricted. It’s entirely on CSF-1, the Eximius Vir, and the Flagship Strike Group now.”
“W-what?!” Kirstin exclaimed in disbelief, only to immediately draw away as Scott and Sarah both turned to look at her. “…B-but… th-that’ll take…!”
“Forever, I knae…” Scott sighed again. “But there’s nae much I can dae about it. Commanders Shepherd and Markovic, and Director Hamasaki are ultimately the ones who decide who goes on what missions. Ah, well…” Scott stretched and yawned broadly. “That’s enough about that stuffy meeting. We can talk about some of the other details later.”
Sarah smirked in amusement. “Did it stress you out that bloody much?”
“Oh shut your mouth,” Scott retorted. “Maybe one day I’ll just make ye Director, lass. Then ye can see what it’s like.”
“And leave you out of a job, old man? I’m not that heartless.”
“Don’t ye ‘old man’ me. I’m only 50…”
“That’s just over twice my age. And two and a half times Kirstin’s.”
“Of course I’m over twice Kirstin’s age, she’s my 20-year-old daughter!”
Not for another three weeks, I’m not… Kirstin thought to herself.
Neither Scott nor Sarah noticed Kirstin’s souring expression, however, as Sarah continued grinning at Scott. “You really are wound up,” she remarked. “When was the last time you had a break? An actual break?”
“That question hardly sounds sincere, coming from the ETAA’s leading workaholic,” Scott countered. “And, oi! I’m the Director, here, why am I lettin’ ye bully me like this?”
“Ah ha ha! Well, since Thanksgiving is tomorrow and our American staff will be out, this week’s movie night was cancelled, but I was still thinking of seeing something. You in? I think you could use the break.”
“Aye… hmm. It has been a while since I went out. What’s the movie?”
“’Singularity V: To Zero and Beyond’. It honestly looks ridiculous — and you know what that means.”
“All the more reason tae watch it!” Scott grinned and clapped his hands together. “That Singularity series is honestly impressive with just how much it gets astrophysics wrong, despite the thin veneer of its space setting. I wonder if V can top IV’s interpretation of a naked singularity!”
“Oh god, don’t remind me. They literally turned it into a sex joke. Which, I mean… that’s pretty on par for physicists, but that was still a new low.”
“Either way, this’ll be Friday, right? I should be able tae make some time. Count me in!”
“Glad to hear it! This’ll be a great time, I’m sure!”
Kirstin glanced warily between Sarah and Scott as the two laughed and exchanged a couple more lines of banter. Just as their conversation seemed to die down, Kirstin finally found the will within her to interject. “Uh, um…” she started, only to quickly lose steam when Scott and Sarah looked her way.
“Something wrong?” Sarah asked.
“W-well, I…” Kirstin glanced down and began to fidget again. “I, um… I d-didn’t know about, the, um… m-movie night…”
“Ah…” Sarah passed Scott a glance before turning back to Kirstin. “Well, there isn’t one this week, really. Normally, a group goes out every Friday night, but since this week is American Thanksgiving, we officially cancelled.”
“Uh… yes. Sorry, were you not aware?”
Kirstin averted her gaze as her cheeks flushed red from a mixture of embarrassment and dejection. “N-no…”
“Ah… well, Scott and I often skip due to work, anyways. That might be why you didn’t know.”
“Ha ha, that’s work for ye. Sorry!” Scott remarked sheepishly. “Though, I just kind of assumed ye wouldnae want tae come, Kirstin. Ye’ve never been a fan of big social outings.”
“Well, on Friday it won’t be,” Sarah commented. “Kirstin, do you want to tag along? It could just be the three of us.”
“Um…!” Kirstin’s eyes grew wide as saucers as she stared at Sarah, completely frozen in place. She then darted her eyes over to Scott, only to return them to Sarah a second later. “Uh…! W-well, um… I-I d-don’t know…”
“Well, if ye make up your mind, let us knae!” Scott replied. “We’d love tae have ye.”
“Watching these kinds of ridiculous movies is always better with friends, after all,” Sarah declared.
“Y-yeah…” Kirstin responded warily, having now once again averted her gaze.
“Aye… well, time tae get back tae work, I suppose,” Scott commented. Kirstin could hear the shuffling of him standing up and retrieving his suit jacket, but not once did she actually look up as she attempted to focus on her laptop.
“What, do you have more meetings?” Sarah questioned incredulously.
“I keep tellin’ ye, bein’ Director is hard work,” Scott retorted. “I have a lunch meeting with Hamasaki, and then a discussion with her and Director Riese, and then I need tae meet with Captain Krick about what he discovered on his latest mission…”
“That certainly sounds like a bloody pain in the arse. You better get going, then.”
“Aye… well. See ye later, Sarah, Kirstin.”
“…Mm…” Kirstin barely grunted in response, briefly glancing up just in time to see Scott step out of the lab, and the door close behind him. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and attempted to calm her rapidly beating heart, and then push the entire movie night conversation out of her mind. Oh, Kirstin, stop this! she mentally berated herself, Dad’s right, I do hate social outings. It’s never fun. Still… how did I not know about this movie night? Why didn’t anyone tell me…? She then rapidly shook her head and slapped her cheeks once. Stop it! Stop thinking about this! Focus, Kirstin, focus! You have work to do…
With that, she managed to finally refocus on the armor parameter readouts on her laptop, and once more resume her work.
Several Hours Later
«Really? You won’t be able to come home, tomorrow…?»
“I’m sorry, honey. But things are getting really busy around here, and the top brass won’t give us much time off.”
«But you’re on Earth, aren’t you? Can’t you just beam down for an hour, or something?»
“Normally, I could, but that isn’t an option right now. I can’t tell you why, either…”
«I see… well, this isn’t the first time this has happened, I suppose…»
“I’m really sorry, Allison. You know I’d be there, if I could…”
«I know, I know. I’m not going to lie, Rachel, I’m a little frustrated, but… well, at least you were able to drop by for a couple nights, last month. That was a pleasant surprise.»
“I’m glad to hear it. Still, I promise I’ll make up for missing Thanksgiving as soon as I can.”
«Do you know if you’ll be home for Christmas?»
“…I… wouldn’t bet on it…”
«I see… well, this is what being a military wife is all about, isn’t it? Ha ha. At least you’re out doing important stuff, and fighting for Earth, and all that cool stuff.»
«Don’t worry, Rachel. I knew what I was getting into when I married you. But the next time you get a break, I want to see you, okay?»
“Of course. You’ll be the first to know if I get leave. In the meantime, though…”
“Yeah… sorry, but I have to go.”
«It’s alright. Keep in touch. Love you.»
“I love you, too. Talk to you later.”
Major Hackett sighed wearily as she closed out the call with her wife. Hackett hadn’t been lying — things were certainly getting busy in SERRCom as of late, and CSF-1’s opportunities for leave anytime in the near future were looking grim. Even day trips with Opportunity’s beaming systems were being locked down, on account of SERRCom gearing up to face the myriad threats to Earth. The facts of the matter didn’t offer much comfort, however, and Hackett couldn’t help but feel displeased with herself for missing yet another holiday season with her significant other.
I’m glad Allison is so understanding… the Major thought to herself as she walked through the hallways of Opportunity en route to one of the armories. We’ve been together for 17 years, now, so I guess she’s used to it, but… maybe I really should transfer into a more conventional Major position. It’d be less exciting and feel less purposeful, but I’d actually have holidays off…
After a moment of thought, Hackett dispelled the doubts from her mind. CSF-1 was on the forefront of important work, after all, and there was no doubt that SERRCom was facing new and increased threats. SERRCom’s entire purpose for existing was to protect Earth and everyone on it, after all, so if Hackett was going to be a part of the organization at all, then she might as well remain where she was the most effective — so she thought.
The Major’s train of thought soon ended as she arrived at one of the armories. The clocks read just past 7 in the evening, which — combined with the fact that many SERRCom personnel aboard the space station actually did have the next day off — made for a derelict set of hallways and rooms. All Hackett could hear was the low hum of the lights and electrical systems buried behind the bulkheads, and as she stepped into the armory, only the soft sound of keyboard clacking joined the chorus. Glancing to the left, the Major spotted Kirstin, sitting with her back to the wall and her face buried in her laptop. On a table in front of her was a pile of metal that Hackett quickly recognized as her own Chaos Armor, and lying next to that was her Gauss-AR02 rifle.
“Kirstin,” Hackett called out, offering a brief wave as the Researcher jumped in her seat.
“O-oh! M-Major!” Kirstin clutched at her chest and took a deep breath. “…S-sorry. Were you, um, waiting…?”
“No, I just got here.” Hackett gave the armory a once-over; this was hardly her first time visiting, and she was by now well familiar with her surroundings. She and Kirstin stood in the main room, which featured several tables for preparing weapons and armor. The storage rooms were through a door in the back, and off to the side was a large glass window into a short firing range, protected by energy shielding to prevent any small arms fire from damaging the space station or anyone outside of the range. Aside from Hackett and Kirstin, no one else was present.
The Major turned back to Kirstin. “So, you called me?” She then nodded down at the armor and weapon on the table. “More tinkering, I take it?”
“Uh… y-yes,” Kirstin replied. She briefly glanced up at Hackett, only to quickly divert her eyes and weakly gesture toward the pile of armor. “I, um… well, w-when I was working on, uh, your armor shielding, I remembered that you, uh, s-said once that it wasn’t, um, v-very comfortable, so…”
“Oh?” The Major approached the table and began sorting out the armor pieces from the pile. Two greaves, two guantlets, and a chestplate — everything was there, and appeared untampered with. “…You can’t really expect military gear to be ‘comfortable’ in the first place, though, I have to say. Especially for a woman of my height.”
“Y-yeah, but, um… I-I figured out how to, um, use the armor’s shields to help with, um, s-supporting its own weight. A-and some of your weight.”
“Are you saying I’m overweight?”
“W-wha-what?! N-no! Th-that’s, I-I—“
“Relax, Kirstin,” Hackett remarked with a smile. “I’m just teasing you. Still…” She looked down at her armor. “I thought the only self-supporting powered armor was the full-body kind.”
“Uh, w-well, regular armor can be s-self-supporting, too, but, uh… i-it usually doesn’t weigh that much anyways, so…”
“So the manufacturers don’t bother tuning them to support their own weight, is what you’re saying?”
“Uh… yeah. Usually sold as a, uh, ex-extra feature, but I, um, f-figured out how to do it anyways…”
“Huh. Let’s see this for myself,” Hackett remarked as she grabbed the armor pieces and began donning them. Sliding on and clasping the gauntlets; pulling on the metal greaves; clipping on the chestplate and fastening the over-shoulder plates; in just under a minute, Hackett had donned the full armor set and activated each of the individual pieces, allowing them all to quickly network with each other and then generate a protective energy shield that closely followed the contours of Hackett’s body. As an energy shield, the protective layer remained invisible from sight — but as the Major began performing a handful of rudimentary stretches, she quickly realized that it almost felt as though she wasn’t wearing the armor at all. Even the slight pressure she had gotten used to feeling on her chest had disappeared.
Hackett continued stretching for another minute, working through the full range of motions of her body before finally placing her hands on her hips and turning to face Kirstin, a pleased smile upon her face. “It really does feel like I’m not wearing the armor at all,” the Major remarked. “Good job, Kirstin.”
“Ah…” Kirstin’s face flushed red and she quickly hid behind her bangs, though Hackett could still make out the faintest of smiles on the Researcher’s expression. “I-it was nothing…”
“I disagree,” Hackett stated, rolling her shoulders and stretching her arms again as she did — the feeling of wearing armor, without it actually weighing her down, was a novel experience. “These kinds of tweaks may seem small, but they can often be the deciding factor in drawn-out engagements. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, either, juggling this tinkering of yours with your regular work.”
The Major glanced over at Kirstin again, only to find that the Researcher had hunched over so far that her face was almost completely hidden by her laptop and her own shoulders. “…Everything alright, Kirstin?”
“Huh?! Uh…” The Researcher glanced up for only a brief second before slouching again. “…I, I’m fine…”
“…Alright. Well, what about my rifle? Did you manage some tweaks, there?”
“O-only a little. I, um, swapped out one of the, uh, th-the coils, which should, um, i-increase bullet speed by a little bit.”
“I see. Does that change the effective range, or the penetration power?”
“O-only a little. One percent, or so. D-didn’t want to, um, ch-change that too much…”
“That’s wise. Changing the handling too much could be an issue. I’ll take an extra 10 meters on the range, though. Never know when that might come in handy. Again, good job, Kirstin.”
Hackett remained silent for a couple moments, her gaze on Kirstin as the Researcher remained hunched over with her eyes glued to her laptop screen. Eventually, Hackett took a deep breath and began again to speak. “Hey… Kirstin.”
Wordlessly, Kirstin peeked over her laptop screen, making eye-contact with Hackett for only a brief second — but keeping her head up all the same.
“Let me be honest with you for a second,” Hackett continued, working to deactivate and remove her armor as she did. “When you first joined CSF-1… honestly, I didn’t think you were going to last. I thought there was some kind of ulterior motive behind Lead putting you on our squad.”
“But that was then. You’ve been with us for over a year, now, and I think you’ve proved your worth.” Hackett placed her newly-removed armor pieces on the table in front of her, and then looked at Kirstin once more. “I don’t know if you realize it, but you’ve helped us out a lot. Both CSF-1, and SERRCom — in, and out of the field.” She reached over the table to rustle Kirstin’s hair; the Researcher flinched away for a second, but on her face, Hackett could see the beginnings of a smile. “Between making our weapons and gear better, and your ability to do quick in-field research and analysis… just think. Without you, we wouldn’t have recovered nearly as much information from that Aldredian Dreadnought, or even survived our short stint in Dead Space. And that’s just from the past couple months. You still have room to grow, of course, but you do good work, Kirstin. Just wanted to let you know.”
“Uh… th-thanks,” Kirstin responded, her voice quiet, her face flushed red, and her eyes diverted — but she was smiling, all the same.
“Now…” Hackett withdrew her hand and stretched once more. “Do you have anything else for me?”
“Uh… n-no.” Kirstin shook her head. “Th-that’s it…”
“Alright, then. Keep it up, Kirstin. I’m glad you’re here. For now, though, I’m going to call it a night. See you tomorrow.”
“Y-yeah… see you…”
With that, Hackett gave Kirstin a curt nod and then left the armory, mentally preparing herself for all of the work she was sure CSF-1 soon would have.