Faster, Closer, Farther

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24SE, August 20th

Six terrorists revealed themselves among the mission candidates, guns in their hands and bombs strapped to their chests. The waiting room had two doors, one leading to the hall and one to the office where the interviews were to take place; but now each one was blocked by two armed people.

“Aurochian culture is obviously superior”, declared their leader, “as proven by the fact that we developed this technology. It's only fair that we keep it to ourselves, and use it to start our own empire!”

“I understand your concerns”, Shen said, “but wouldn't it be better to bring it to public discussion in the usual channels?”

“We tried”, he said, stepping forward and putting the barrel of his gun directly to Shen's head. “But you people and your propaganda machine crushed us to the ground. Well, we will be heard! We'll blow up this facility, and with the loss of most supporters plus a lot of the resources, we'll see if it gets cancelled!”

Shen was unfazed by the gun touching his forehead. “Well, it's not that you were unheard… you were just outvoted. It happens, in a democratic process.”

“It's a false democracy, when we have the likes of you waving your money and influence and turning that into an unstoppable propaganda juggernaut!”

“I'm sorry you feel that way, but in this specific instance, what happened would be better described, in fact, as a lack of propaganda from your part.”

“Huh?”

“The people in the Committee did appreciate your sentiment, and believe it or not, it does have sympathisers even there. But it was far from clear what exactly your platform entails, and how, in fact, it's incompatible with the Embassy Project.”

The man looked rather angry. “Are you trying to play dumb? I just told you what we want!”

“Hmm no, not really. An ‘Aurochian Empire’ is a nice slogan, but what does it actually mean? The term is traditionally used to describe a political regime where one ruler has power over a number of nations. But we don't even have a president, anymore! Most of our governance is performed by self-organising, sometimes competing, Executive Committees, which anyone can join. Of course, once in, you have to work your way up the ranks before you have much of a voice, but most people believe in the system — and often non-members are heard as well, if they're considered experts in whatever is being discussed. And when there are big, momentous decisions to make, we open it up for popular discussion and vote.”

“I know that!”, he exclaimed, with the eyes of a fanatic reciting his dogma. “That's why we're better! That and guaranteed minimum income, which gives us greater vocational mobility and intellectual freedom.”

“Right. So… if the core of the Aurochian system is participation and individual freedom, how exactly do you expand that into an ‘Empire’, without destroying its spirit?”

“If we have FTL and nobody else does, we can reach more habitable planets. We can spread, get richer, and increase our numbers faster, and by the time the others get where they're going, we'll be there already. We'll be everywhere!”

“I see. But if we spread our resources so thin, both material and population, it will take much longer to terraform potential worlds.”

“Well…” Shen waited patiently to see if the man was going to add something, but it didn't happen, so he continued.

“Even if the popular majority favours supremacism and the use of force… and personally I feel this betrays the very things that make us ‘better’, but let's imagine we go that way… wouldn't it make more sense to reach out to the other fleets, and dominate them culturally, or economically, or even by force, so they can do the hard work for us? And like we developed the Fold Compressor, and a few other useful technologies, isn't it possible that some other fleet has something that could make terraforming faster or cheaper?”

“… maybe.”

“Conversely, if you blow up everyone in this building, which includes some very loved people, and do substantial material and environmental damage to the district, don't you think it will polarise popular feelings against your faction?”

“We were desperate.”

“Well, don't. There's still about six months to the launch. Stay alive, and out of jail, and go talk to people. Go build popular support for your faction, so you can influence how we actually deal with the other fleets' people once we reach them.”

The man dropped his weapon; most of his colleagues looked confused, but eventually followed suit.

However, one large man was furious with the development, and decided to make a stand. He grabbed Sandy in a chokehold, and put his gun to her temple.

“Bullshit!”, he yelled. “We're blowing this place up!”

Shen turned around to look at him, but the man growled before he could say anything:

“Not another word out of your snake tongue, mister, or her brains will be all over the room! I'm tired of seeing you talk people into doing whatever you want! It ends here now…”

His barking was interrupted, and his eyes suddenly went very googly, as his testicles were viciously crushed by Sandy's right hand. Then she bent forward, and using that handhold, threw him over her back; he landed nastily on his head, and received an additional kick on the face for good measure.

“Goodness”, said Shen, a little shocked. “Wasn't that a little bit excessive?”

The woman shrugged. “He had a bomb, and we had no idea what the detonation mechanism is. I had to make him too shocked to act, and then unconscious, as fast as possible, without killing him in case it's a dead man's switch. It's not particularly any business of mine if he ever walks again, or for that matter if he's able to reproduce.”

He looked at the mess of a man on the floor, while the security forces stormed the room, and felt a chill.

When the dust settled, he was disappointed, but not too surprised, to see that more than half the people had left. In the end, the commotion served to impress on the candidates how dangerous the mission was going to be. For a moment, he wished he had thought of that and arranged it himself; but then he decided he wasn't that manipulative… probably.

He surveyed the remaining candidates, and noticed a tallish woman, probably about his age, sporting a mildly androgynous look that worked well with her angular face, looking completely unfazed, even a little amused. He gestured to her. “You.”

“What?” She was a little startled to be suddenly brought into the spotlight.

“You're first. Please come into the office.” He walked in, without checking if either the candidate or Sandy were following.

They were, of course. Sandy entered last and closed the door behind her. The other woman looked around appraisingly.

“I'm Shen”, he said, somewhat redundantly, offering his hand, which she shook. “And what do I call you?”

“Mari”, she said. “I'm a cultural curator.”

“Have a seat”, he offered, with a vague motion towards the chairs arranged in a rough circle in the middle. Shen believed that interviews around a desk or table create an “us versus them” atmosphere, and preferred this kind of arrangement, even if it made it a little harder to make notes. Earlier in his career, he tried getting around that issue by recording the interviews, but found that intruded too much on candidates' privacy for Aurochian tastes, and many wouldn't consent anyway. Now he just used his data pad, with a shorthand input method.

“Mari”, he said. “Make your pitch. Why do I want you in my ship?”

The woman hardly even batted an eye. “I've been a cultural curator since before the profession acquired that name, mostly because I'm keenly interested in other cultures. Even before I left Earth, I was already spending a lot of my time learning about Japanese and British cultures and lifestyles; when we moved to the ship, interacting with people from so many different origins was my dream come true. And then there were many who felt it was important to keep a record of those old cultures, and in fact, in the early years, lots of people actively sought to study the cultures in which their co-workers or romantic partners had grown up, to improve communication and collaboration. So a profession emerged, out of the people who took charge of those records… we were initially called historians, but the name felt strange; not because the history in question was so recent, but, as it soon became apparent, because the history was just an aspect of our work; understanding how those cultures had evolved after the launch and how they had helped shape the new Aurochian lifestyle were also expected of us.”

“That's a nice demonstration of your didactic abilities, but not a very good pitch”, he said, with a smile.

“Sorry, habit. My point was, I got into this because I was into other cultures, and especially into cultural differences and how people from these cultures interact. Twenty-three years later, though, if we're not quite homogenous, at least it's safe to say we're Aurochian first and then whatever we or our parents were before… frankly, it's beginning to get boring for me. The chance to meet other cultures is like a fresh breath in my life. Meanwhile, I'm actually quite good at my work; I can analyse and adapt to a culture well and pretty quickly, and I'm fluent in seven languages, including Renlan, which the Baiji adopted as their official language.”

He nodded. “All right. Now that's a pitch. And putting that aside… honestly, is that your whole reason for going, or is there something else?”

Mari gasped a surprised breath, but then nodded resolutely. “My career is kind of dead-ended. Even though, as I said, I'm really good, there's a limited number of cultural institutes, and quite a few people more experienced, better connected, or sometimes even better than me. So sticking to this career probably means staying in the exact same position for the next ten years or, well, who knows. It's not so much that I'm ambitious, but I'm beginning to get… well, offended, that I keep being passed up for promotions and nominations. I don't know if it's leftover sexism in a profession that by nature spends a lot of time thinking about the old and not necessarily better ways, or it's just because I'm not assertive enough… or something else. Either way… Since society is being shaken up in a major way by this new technology, I guess it's a good time for me to jump to a new career; and being in the first batch will open up a lot of opportunities in the future.”

That made Shen smile. “I hope so. Well then Mari — what's your full name?”

This time she couldn't hide her shock; she blinked a few times and actually moved her head back a bit, and even Sandy didn't quite know how to react. In the privacy-heavy Aurochian society, asking someone for their full name is something that simply wasn't done. Full names were used on documents and for official purposes, and outside that, were given very rarely, and only without asking. But Mari took only a couple of seconds to understand what was happening; that was a test. Surely, other ships might have gone a different path, and we know almost nothing about how the Baijiren live, having lost contact with them almost twenty years ago. What if full names are socially required there? More importantly, what if other things are required, that for us are even greater taboo than a name?

“Marianna Webster”, she said, offering her hand. “I'm from Australia.” He took the extended hand and pulled it, taking her in for a hug — which between people who just met would be considered inappropriate touching, verging on rape, but he compounded it by kissing her in the cheeks. “Shen Nok Lai, born and raised in Hong Kong”, he said. “Nice to meet you, Marianna.” She froze solid for half a second, but decided this what she was asking for, and ultimately, who she was, after all; so she lowered her defences and kissed his cheek with nearly exactly the same angle, duration, touching surface, and level of intimacy; she also wrapped her hands around his back and squeezed just a little.

“Nice to meet you too, Shen”, she said, almost in his ear.

October 16th

Mari and Sandy were hanging in the cafeteria, having coffee and cheesecake. They were getting close, after almost two months of working and training together.

“So”, said Sandy. “Are you and Shen, you know…?”

Mari chuckled. “Why Sandy, that's awfully personal.”

“Well”, Sandy said with a very serious face, “gossip is an ancient ritual, known to strengthen bonds between colleagues, especially gossip of a romantic or sexual nature.” She kept staring at Mari very serious for a few seconds, but eventually she cracked up. The two women laughed a bit, attracting curious looks from around them — very quick looks though, as the cultural imperative to respect their privacy quickly reasserted itself over instinctive curiosity.

“To be honest”, said Mari, wiping a tear, “I guess there is some tension, and we even tried going out once. But in the end, it was just awkward for me.”

“Oh come on. There's nothing wrong with dating or banging the boss. I mean, some people still have a bit of a hangup about it, depending on where they come from… but what am I doing, you know this better than I do of course. Point is, the way we do things these days, there are too many checks and balances for anyone to expect unfair advantage from such a relationship… and wasn't that the main problem with work relationships? If everyone takes for granted you'll be the second-in-command, it's because you earned it, not because they think you're sleeping with the man.”

“No, no. It wasn't that at all. It's just…” she picked at her cheesecake. “Isn't he a bit too perfect? He's your fairy-tale self-made man, entrepreneur genius, lived in a slum before the launch and built himself a fortune, has an answer to everything, never loses his cool… I find that… hard to deal with.”

“Oh?”

“Some of the time, I take him at face value, and that's rather intimidating. How can any of us measure up to that? He's just… too much, you know what I mean? The perfect man may be great for a one-night stand, but spend too much time with him, and it's just a constant reminder of how inadequate you are in comparison.”

“Well, you're pretty brilliant yourself.”

“Thanks, but nowhere near on the same level.”

Sandy shrugged. “In fact, don't you feel sometimes our whole team is exceptionally brilliant? Everyone is a genius in one way or another? Doesn't that seem a little… suspicious?”

“Not really”, Mari reflected. “For one thing, the way we structured our society, I guess this is the kind of people that would float to the top… and I like to think we encourage more people to reach their potential, as well. But a lot of it is also a question of Shen's recruiting skills. I mean, I heard he dug you up from the middle of the spaceport on a ship that doesn't have a name.”

“Aurochs 7, yes. But let's not change the subject”, she said, with a wink. “Some of the time you think he's really perfect…”

“… other times I think, well, he's human like the rest of us, and that makes me feel rather wary, because nobody is perfect, so he must have some skeletons hidden somewhere.”

“Oh, I've seen some of his skeletons”, Sandy said, casually.

“I beg your pardon?”

The engineer shrugged. “Well, since we're gossiping… when we met, I mentioned I was into VR games, so after some time he invited me to play together; it turns out he's also an active player, and we even have a few games in common.”

“But there's nothing wrong with that…”

“Oh, of course. What I'm referring to is… well, the way he plays it. He's, not to put too fine a point on it, extremely violent. It's like all this calm and composure you see all the time? He's just bottling everything up, then he straps on a VR set and goes on to be the most barbaric sadist you could imagine.”

“Whoa.”

“Yeah, it was… a little shocking.”

“I'm sorry you had to go through that.”

“Are you kidding? Can you imagine what it's like to have an animal like that on your pirate crew? I loved it!”

Mari looked in her eyes, and almost a minute of awkward silence followed.

The sudden appearance of the man himself startled them both; they looked at each other guiltily, wondering if he heard anything, but knowing he didn't.

“Ladies”, he said. “Great to find the two of you together, I need your help.”

Sandy got up without thinking. “What happened?”

“There was an accident in the Great Plains high-energy lab. Nobody died, but the researcher we had signed up for our ship, as well as three of the reserves, are gravely hurt, so there's no way any of them are going to the Baiji in four months.”

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