Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 4, 2398

Mateo is on foot again, this time with his cell phone tucked neatly in his pocket, still over 90% charged. He stormed out of the car so quickly the other night that he didn’t notice it fall out of his pocket, and then he was mostly worried about himself—perhaps he might get lost in the big city—because he didn’t know that Ramses was in trouble. They all need to stay in contact all the time. Even if three of them are in the middle of a serious conversation, and want to turn off their ringers, the six of them are always exceptions.
As Mateo continues down the sidewalk, he dwells on the events before the abduction. That’s a whole weird conversation they need to have, because it’s just getting unbelievable that they’ve nearly all been taken and held against their will at some point. Only Marie has made it out of this so far, and she’s about to travel to a potentially hostile environment in Croatia, so it could only be a matter of time. That’s not what he’s upset about right now, though. After Leona’s hostage situation, she came out of it perfectly fine. According to her report, two men broke into the lab due the perceived wrongful termination of one of them. On their way to dinner on Tuesday, Leona let a little bit of information about that debacle slip, which snowballed into the truth that not only did that guy end up with temporal tech, but also that a shady organization is now probably watching their every move.
Leona is concerned about these people, but she was evidently not going to tell anyone about it. Instead, she had this elaborate plant to methodically sneak every team member out of the country, and seek anonymous refuge elsewhere. She hoped that, now that Mateo knew what was going on, he would side with her, and help her make this actually work. Now the reality is out in the open, though, no one else agrees with her either. Something has to be done about their exposure, but running is not the answer. They’ll just be looking over their shoulders forever, and any hope they might have of returning home will be lost. Mateo can’t go look for answers around the world, and Ramses can’t build whatever it is he thinks they need, if people are tracking them. The only option is to fight back, and it starts with what Mateo is doing on his own today. He shakes off the fight, because he has to switch gears to another problem. These military credentials were a bad idea from the start, and he can’t believe the rest of the team let him go through with it. Hopefully the forger doesn’t give him any crap.
He’s about to knock on the door when the lock buzzes, and it opens a crack. He steps in to find her waiting for him at the end of the hallway, instead of behind the counter. She looks...excited? “Oh no,” he says. “You’re scaring me. What are you planning to sell me today?”
“No, nothing. No extra costs.” She said she didn’t want any repeat business, but she sure doesn’t exhibit such misanthropy in real life. “I was just about to call you, which is a cool coincidence. I think you’re really gonna like it.”
“I don’t want anything more. In fact, I would like to return something.”
“No refunds.”
“No refund necessary. I just want you to remove me from any and all databases featuring me as an individual with military credentials.”
“Ooo, I don’t know that I can do that.”
“You’re going to have to figure it out. It’s already gotten me in trouble once.”
“Yeah, I heard about your little adventure on the high seas.”
“How could you have heard about that? We didn’t tell anyone.”
Let’s just say that I’m more than just a local forger.”
He points at her face. “See, that. That’s what makes me nervous about you.”
“No, don’t be nervous. That’s ignorant.”
“What are you?”
“I’m somebody that can get you into any government agency building in the country, or any U.S. outpost in the world.”
“I never asked for that!” he shouts.
“I got it for you anyway. It’s not crazy. Lots of veterans transition to agency work after their service commitment ends.”
“I just told you that I want to be erased from the system,” he reminds her. “I don’t want to do anything with that. Only a few men found out about me, but the longer I stay in there, the greater the chances that my position within the military will be scrutinized. So just get rid of it. Wipe it clean.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’ve already initiated the upgrade package. This one is airtight. You come from a profoundly secretive branch of the intelligence department. Anyone who tries to verify your history will hit a brick wall. Those people can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an agent of any given name. You could ask them if Daranda The Drama Dragon was an agent, and they would give you reason to believe that maybe she actually is.”
“Who is Daranda The Drama Dragon?”
“See, that. That’s what makes me nervous about you,” she echoes him from earlier, with the same accusatory finger-pointing. “Every kid grew up watching Dragon Drama on Sunday mornings. The fact that it doesn’t even trigger a familiar reaction from you makes no sense. So where are you really from?”
“Nowhere special, we just needed new identities. I thought you didn’t ask questions.”
“I don’t know that I said that.” She sighs, and presents him with a silver authority badge, and a sidearm. “You’ll need these later.”
“I don’t..want them!”
“You don’t..have a choice!”
“Erase me from the military system, or I’ll expose your little operation to whatever agency might be interested in you, as well as any other interested third party. You somehow got it in your head that I can be pushed around, and manipulated, but my friends and I don’t like to be told what to do. It never ends well for the people doing the telling.” He ignores the badge and gun, and tries to walk away
“How would you handle someone like me?” she asks, which doesn’t prompt him to turn back. “Would you teleport into my house at night, and slit my throat?”
Now he stops, wishing he hadn’t. If he had just kept walking, maybe whatever it is she knows could just be brushed off as a ridiculous figment of her imagination. Just by pausing, he’s given her cause to think he has anything to do with teleportation.”
“Who are you, and why do you want me to become a federal agent? What can I do that you can’t do yourself, or have done for you by someone you know you can trust?”
“I’m the only one in this world who’s on your side. The war is coming, Mr. Matic. You can either support the war effort, or put a stop to it. You’ll need a badge either way.”

Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 3, 2398

Leona did a double take as she was driving last night on her way back from date night. She and Mateo were meant to have dinner downtown, but they got in a fight on the ride out there, and ended up just skipping it. He got out of the car to walk alone, so she decided to drive around a little bit to clear her head. It’s not everyday that he has the upper hand in an argument, so she wasn’t exactly excited to get back home and face her friends. She wasn’t too far away when she spotted one of them walking along the path in the park across from their building. “Hey!” she called out to him. He looked around for the source of the voice, and smiled when he found it. Before they could exchange one more word with each other, a dark van pulled up between them, and stopped for a few seconds. When it drove away, Ramses was gone.
She held for a second to go over the possibilities. He could have been taken against his will, sure. It wouldn’t be the first time for any of them. She didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but he clearly saw her on the other side of the road. He wouldn’t have smiled if he didn’t realize in time that it was her. Given that, he would have made an effort to say something to her if he was intending to get into that van. He wouldn’t have just shrugged off the awkward timing, and went about his secret business. No, even though she didn’t know why he would be taken, it was the only logical hypothesis. So she moved over to the right lane, put on her hazard lights, and impatiently waited for the traffic to clear. Then she made an illegal u-turn, and begin to pursue the van.
She called his phone, just in case there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this. After three rings, the driver of the van tossed something relatively small out the window. She was pretty sure she knew what it was, but she stopped anyway, and quickly opened her door to pick the phone off the road, and bring it in. Hopefully they didn’t just see her do that, because they might become suspicious. Fortunately, the car behind her still had a ways to go before catching up, so nobody honked their horn. Now it was pretty obvious that something nefarious was going on here, and she needed help. She tried to call Marie, and then Angela, but neither of them answered their phone. She called Mateo, even though he was surely still on foot, but his phone rang inside the car. Damn, he left it here when he hopped out in a huff. She was going to have to fix this on her own.
Twenty-five minutes later, they were into the rural outskirts of the metropolitan area, and the van was showing no signs of slowing. That was when the route started to become all kinds of crazy. They turned down one road, and then down another, and then another, until they were all the way back to where they started from. They winded around, and occasionally spent a little too long at a stop sign. Oh no, they must have realized that she was following them, and were just testing her. She tried to call her friends again, but this time couldn’t even get through to voicemail. She couldn’t find a signal at all. What were these people doing? And what were they going to do to Ramses once they confirmed that Leona was behind them. It was dark, though, and despite the fact that they were out in the country, there were still quite a few other cars around. She just hung back a little farther, and prayed that they couldn’t prove any suspicions. 
They played this game for hours, and now it’s after midnight. There’s still no cell service, and Heath’s car is running out of gas. The van probably is too, but she has no choice but to keep trying. All she can do is continue to follow, three cars back, and hope that they stop soon. They don’t, though. In fact, they turn off on a single lane road; that’s one lane, full stop. It would look mighty suspicious if she happened to be going that way too. But it doesn’t matter, because Ramses needs rescuing, and she’s the rescuer. They keep going until they reach this isolated little farmhouse.
Leona switches off her lights, and turns into the driveway, because if they haven’t noticed her by now, they probably never will. They go all the way up to the porch, but she stops near the road to watch. She sees them drag a Ramses-sized burlap sack, up the steps, and into the house. If he’s dead, she’s going to kill them. One of them leans against the van and lights up a cigarette while the others are starting to do whatever it is they plan on doing. That’s when she gets out of her car, and approaches without caution.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to be here! Who are you?” he cries.
“This your van?” she asks, nodding to it like a gangsta.
“What of it?”
“How did you not detect my pursuit?”
“Hell you talkin’ ‘bout?”
She pops him in the nose with her forearm, spilling blood out like a beer can at a college party. As he’s crying like a baby, and trying to shove the blood back into his body, she slams the back of his head against the passenger window, cracking it slightly. Lastly, she situates the inside of her ankle against his, and pulls the back of his neck away from the car. He trips on her leg, and crashes to the ground. She stomps on his back before casually walking up the steps, where she finds the other two men trying to get Ramses into a chair. They stop and stare at her of course, not sure what the hell is going on.
“Hey, wait, I know you. You’re just a floor worker.”
“No,” Leona contends. “I’m the lead floor worker.” She fights them both. They have knives, which is adorable, and they’re rolling on the floor in a matter of seconds. Those three years she spent training with the Crucia Heavy really paid off. These electronic repair idiots are no match for her, but it’s better to be overqualified than underqualified.
Once it’s all over, Ramses finally comes to. He takes a moment to assess the situation. “Thanks for coming after me.”
Leona starts to untie him. “What do these guys what?”
He chuckles. “Honor. You see, I quit, which apparently didn’t mean that the number two worker was promoted to supervisor, or as a thought, repromoted. They had to be tested again, and evidently, Bruno over there cheated the first time, so they fired him. And the other guy, Stockboy, just sort of does whatever Bruno says.
“We were driving for, like, four hours, but we’re probably less than an hour away,” she tells him, questioning the rationale.
“Yeah, they were worried about being followed or traced, so they thought going around in circles would prevent that. I guess they figured that would be good enough, and they wouldn’t have to actually look out for someone like you. True morons, if you ask me.”
“I would have asked,” Leona begins, “if I didn’t surmise that myself.” She tenses up when the front door opens, but relaxes when she sees that it’s the rest of the team. They’re in no hurry either, presumably after seeing the driver writhing on the ground.
“Okay,” Heath says, “next time you go into the Great Dead Zone, drop a message. We barely found you.”

Friday, August 5, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 2, 2398

Leona and Mateo are having a date night, so they’ll be out of the condo for a few hours. Ramses doesn’t have anywhere to be, but he starts getting the sense that Heath and Marie need him to be away too, so he goes for a walk around the plaza, looking to find something interesting or new to do. Now it’s just the Waltons, and they have something important to talk about. Angela knows the other two want to discuss something, but she doesn’t know what. The truth is, no one out of the three of them knows how this is going to go.
“I think I’ll start,” Marie says solemnly. “First of all, I want to thank you for all the support you two have shown me during this difficult time. It’s been really helpful to know that I have a loving family who are willing to go to great lengths to protect me, and my future. This has not been an easy decision, and while we’ve had our issues, I believe that we’re ready to move forward. Can we all at least agree with that much?”
“Yes,” Heath answers. Now he’s worried. He thought they were on the same page.
“Of course,” Angela concurs.
Marie goes on, “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and...” She sighs, not wanting to say what she needs to say.
“Go ahead,” her husband encourages.
“I believe,” she continues, drawing as much strength as she can find, “that you can’t come with me to Croatia.” She’s not looking at either of them, which makes her statement a little confusing.
“Obviously, I can’t go...” Angela says.
“No, not you.” She finally looks back over. “You. Heath, you can’t come with me, not if we want this to work. Before you argue, Angela has to become me, and that includes everything. She has to become a coder, and a volunteer at the community kitchen twice a week, and she has to become your wife. This isn’t going to matter if even one person beyond the team begins to get the idea that there’s any distance between the two of you.”
“Well, how far do you want this to go?” Heath questions.
“What do you mean?”
“How far should I go? Should we start sharing a bed? Should we start having sex? How committed do you want me to be to the lie?”
“Do you want to have sex with her?” Marie asks.
“No! That’s what I’m saying!”
“You promised to not raise your voice anymore,” Marie reminds him.
“I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated, because I also promised to see you through this whole thing, and now you don’t even want me to be within eight thousand kilometers of you. That’s just hard to hear.”
“It’s not that I don’t want you with me, it’s just not smart. Think about it logically. Angela’s gonna run into into our downstairs neighbor, and they’re going to invite the two of us to dinner Friday night, and she’s going to have to come up with some excuse, and then suddenly the period during which you were reportedly gone perfectly lines up with the period during which I was actually gone, and then maybe people start to ask questions, and maybe they end up asking too many.”
“I know, it’s the right thing to do. I just didn’t want to let you go alone.”
“I won’t be alone. Mateo will be there.”
“Mateo? Just Mateo?” Angela asks, now confused about that.
“The two of us don’t have professional lives to think about,” Marie begins to explain. “It makes sense that he could up and leave. No one will be wondering where he went off to.”
“Ramses doesn’t really have anything going on either,” Heath points out.
“Yes, he does. He’s extremely busy, trying to get us out of this reality.”
“Oh, he’s still on that?” Heath can’t help but be disgusted by the prospect. Everyone else he cares about, including Marie, is a visitor to this world. But he grew up here. This is his home. It’s not perfect. It’s downright cruel in some ways. But it’s familiar, and as random as all the laws, customs, and religious practices seem to be, they’re rooted in a history that he grew up learning. They make perfect sense to him. The others have experience being strangers in a strange land. This is all he knows. He can’t just leave, and he can’t let Marie go.
“It’s how he’s helping,” Angela tells him. “We don’t have to make any decisions yet, but it’s why you agreed to go on the mission with Mateo later this month, isn’t it?”
“How can I go on that?” Heath puts forth. “If I can’t ever be away from Marie, then that’s impossible.”
“Mateo’s been talking to me about that,” Angela says. “You can’t go on that either. You have a life here, and abortion or no, you have to keep living it. This isn’t your problem, you don’t even want to find anything.”
“Don’t tell me what I want, and don’t want,” Heath argues.
“Honey, you’re getting close.”
“Sorry,” he whispers. He does his counting exercise. “You’re right. It was a stupid idea. I got so excited to have an adventure, I stopped thinking rationally. I think we all did. It doesn’t make sense for me to disappear, not unless all six of us just go off the grid together.”
“Well, that’s one thought,” Marie admits.
“Are you seriously considering that?” Angela questions, shocked. “You’ve built a life for yourself here.”
“Well, I’m about to lose it anyway, aren’t I?”
“No, that can’t be true,” Angela believes. “I’m just a temporary placeholder. You’ll be back eventually. No one’s expecting you to have an abortion.”
“Except for Fairpoint,” Heath reminds her.
“Oh, yeah. What are we gonna do about Fairpoint?” Marie asks. Now her stomach is getting upset. He’s the only other non medical professional who knows she’s pregnant.
They hear the sound of the front door opening, and sort of a huff from down the hallway. Mateo rounds the corner alone. He’s not happy, but not extremely distressed either. “Sorry to intrude. I can leave and come back, if you want.”
“No, it’s fine,” Marie assures him. “Where’s Leona?”
His eyes widen, as he looks around, even though he’s confident she isn’t hiding in a corner. “She took the car,” Mateo says. “I walked back. She should have returned long before now.”
“Why did you walk?” Heath consults his watch. “You weren’t gone all that long.”
“We had another fight. She was in the wrong this time, before you make any assumptions. But now I need your help to find her.”

Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 1, 2398

When Angela Walton was first alive, she was a pretty submissive girl, as was common in those days. She didn’t believe in the things that her family did, but she wasn’t outspoken about it either. Her father was patient enough to let her wait to marry a man she loved, but that was about as lenient as he could tolerate to be, and he lost that patience when her fiancé disappeared. She would marry who he chose, and that was final. It wasn’t until after her death that Angela started to find herself. The interesting thing about the afterlife simulation is that it wasn’t millennia beyond the technological limitations of the living world. For most of its history, it was only ever moderately more advanced, despite the fact that the devisers were from the future, and could have always included modern tech. They chose not to in order to keep the residents comfortable, and feeling safe. Teaching a mammoth hunter to use a microwave oven is probably just asking too much. So for the longest time, the virtual worlds pretty faithfully resembled the real world, because that’s all those people knew. That would change in the future, when science fiction began to open up people’s imaginations, but there was always one thing that was shockingly progressive.
According to Tamerlane Pryce, he put no effort into regulating the way society manifested itself in the construct. He claimed to have let the people decide for themselves. This is likely not entirely true, but not totally inaccurate either. Based on some few and far between studies that dead researchers tried to conduct over the centuries, it would seem that the act of death alone is enough to alter an individual’s worldview. That is, they gain perspective simply by passing on, and often lose a lot of the prejudices and hate they once lived with. The theory was that this process was fostered by the fact that everyone dies alone. When John Doe makes the transition, he does so removed from all the people who fueled his beliefs and preconceived notions. The people he meets now have either been there for some time, or they came from other parts of the world. That’s what philosophers imagine Pryce regulated—knowingly or not. He set up a system that grouped newcomers together through a filter of diversity, and studies have proven that living in a diverse area is the number one cause of acceptance and love. What this all means is that racism, sexism, and other biases are harder to hold onto when borders have been removed, gender roles have been ignored, and no one can rise to power without deserving it.
When Angela rose to power, it was after centuries of hard work. She had to shed her old identity, and her old personality, and pretty much become a completely different person. If not for the fact that she looks the same as she always has, no one who knew her before her death would recognize her now. She doesn’t take other people’s crap anymore, and she doesn’t just do as she’s told. If you want her to trust in your choices, you have to prove that you’re worthy of making them, and if you don’t, she’s going to decide for you. Maintaining a normal job in a mundane world is a skill that Marie honed for four years before the rest of her team showed up. She learned to listen to the words of lesser men, because she would lose it all if she didn’t. Angela has yet to learn this lesson, and her meeting has demonstrated just how far she has yet to go. None of Marie’s training could have prepared her to suffer through all that bullshit. She speedwalks to the bathroom at her first opportunity, and retches into the toilet.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: May 31, 2398

The team sits around the table, prepared to have dinner together, but not yet ready. Ramses is methodically walking around the condo, waving his wand at every wall, every floor, every object; sometimes more than once for good measure. They believe that they’ve been pretty sensitive to his needs, but there is a limit to their capacity to indulge him. “Rambo,” Marie says, but has to stop when her own grumbling stomach interrupts her. “This is the third time you’ve done that today. We’re all here to eat. Come to the table.”
“Yeah, it’s the third time, and I’m not with it yet. You think I’m gonna stop at two and a half? I just need a little more time.”
“You ain’t got more time,” Marie pushes. “Now we’re all here to celebrate Angela’s pending graduation, and you’re going to be a part of it.”
“Just one more room,” Ramses begs.
“No, it’s fine. No one snuck in here in the last three hours, and planted bugs. They would have to contend with our bugs!”
“I’m just trying to protect you in the only way I’m capable. I was once the only engineer, but now that everybody’s constantly studying, where does that leave me?”
“With any luck, at the dinner table,” Marie responds to his question, instead of trying to console him.
“Honey, he’s going through something right now,” Heath says, hoping to help.
“We’re all going through something,” Marie dismisses. “Angela has to steal my identity, Leona was just taken hostage, Mateo was...also just taken hostage, you recently quit your job, and I have to have an abortion.”
Ramses stops scanning for listening devices, and drops his arms depressively.
“You promised never to play that card,” Angela scolds.
“Why is everyone attacking me now?” Marie questions loudly.
“No one’s attacking anybody,” Leona contends. She stands up. “Ship or no, I’m still the captain of this crew. Ramses, come let us eat. Marie, be a little nicer. Mateo?”
“Huh, what?” Mateo wasn’t really paying attention. He’s too hungry.
“Pay attention,” Leona orders. “And Angela?” They hold their breath, not sure what criticism she could possibly have of Angela. “Congratulations,” she finishes.
“I’m not graduating anything,” Angela argues. “I’m just decent enough at my doppelgänger’s job to fake my way through a shift from here on out.”
“Pretty impressive, if you ask me,” Mateo says, hoping it’s enough to make it seem as if he’s been listening this whole time. He knew a kid like that in grade school. He would always answer one question, ask one question, or make one comment, per day. Sometimes it was very small and inconsequential, but that way, the teacher couldn’t claim that he never participated in class. He had some anxiety problems which otherwise made him the furthest anyone could be from the class clown, so that sort of thing was always a struggle for him.
“Well, the real test is tomorrow in the meeting.”
“I thought you had dealt with a meeting by now,” Heath says, digging into his potatoes, now that Ramses has surrendered.
“I’ve been to a meeting, yes,” Angela explains, “but I’m running this one.”
“It’s a big deal,” Marie says, trying to sound supportive, but realizing immediately that it also makes it sound like a lot of pressure. “You’ll do great.” Saved it.
“Thanks, but...”
“But nothing. You’re me, and I rock in those meetings, so you will too.”
“Who was that guy we met in the simulation?” Angela asks. “Somehow, we ended up teaching him how to play horseshoes? You remember?”
“Oh. Uh, Cyrano. What about him?”
“Well, we saw him at that restaurant something like fifty years later. He had won a ghosting mod in a raffle, and was using it to—”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Marie recalls. “He was, like, hypnotizing people to make them say weird things to their dinner dates? I don’t remember how he did that part, or why we were able to see him. But yeah, I remember him. Why?”
“You could basically do that,” Angela suggests. “I could wear an earpiece and video glasses, and you could just tell me what to say, and how to act in the meeting. That way, I wouldn’t be able to screw it up.”
“Oh, right, that’s a great idea!” Marie says, giving Angela some hope. “Oh, but no, there’s a problem with that plan.”
“What?”
“The problem is I’m not going to do that.”

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: May 30, 2398

The internal investigator looks over the file like a cliché. His gaze jumps from the middle of the page to the top, then to the bottom, and then back to the other side. He wipes the sweat from his forehead with what appears to be a dishrag, and pulls the chair out for himself. “State your name for the record.”
She looks around for a recording device. Perhaps it’s hidden under the table. “Leona Matic.”
“What is your position within this organization?”
“My official title is Advisory Head of Special Projects.”
“Advisory Head?” he echoes in the form of a question.
“A little odd, but anything less ambiguous would be too elaborate and long.”
“Very well.” He flips through the file a little more. “How did Mister Bandoni do what he did?
She carefully considers the statement she prepared. “The device he used emits a particular frequency, which researchers have discovered to temporarily interfere with the human brain’s ability to encode recently absorbed long term memory.”
“I understood that,” the investigator says honestly. “But for the record, could you repeat that in English?”
“It makes you forget what you just saw. To compensate, your mind simply skips over the time it missed, and moves on from there, which can make it appear as if objects and people have moved instantly from one point in space to another.”
He closes his eyes and nods, satisfied with this response.
“Do you know what happened to the security footage from the basement lab during the hostile actions on the part of Mr. Bandoni?”
“I imagine he erased them.” He did not. He cut off the live feed so outside observers could not watch remotely, but it was she who wiped the footage after managing to incapacitate him.
He nods again. “He did. Well, not all of it. He looks up and over at his shoulder as he takes a little remote out of his pocket. The mirror behind him renders a video image. “Take note of the timestamp.” It’s showing a bird’s eye view of the lab, presumably from the perspective of a camera mounted on the rocketship, which must not be linked to the network. It clearly shows Holger teleporting across the room as he wrangles the staff without the aid of anyone else. Of course, since he really is teleporting—and not interfering with anyone’s memory—the timestamp shows him to be jumping around instantaneously.
“Touché.”
“Tell me, Magnus Matic, why would you lie to us about this? What does he have on you?”
“Nothing. He’s an idiot.”
“He’s not saying a word.”
“That’s probably for the best.”
The investigator kind of rolls his eyes. “We don’t just have video, but audio. We heard your whole conversation. You know more about this stuff than he does. You weren’t surprised by what he could do, and you took control of the situation at your earliest convenience. I assume the thing you said about the watch exploding was a lie?”
“Maybe.”
“The problem is we can’t find it.” He leans back and skips the video to the point where Leona picks up the watch and transports it to oblivion. It’s not full on molecular teleportation, but a failsafe that rips the device into a thousand pieces, and embeds it in the nearest solid object. In this case, it’s probably in the floor, or maybe a nearby wall.
“Hm. Weird.”
He smiles out of mad respect. “I like your lie. The whole interference with long-term memory thing, that’s pretty cool; we’re gonna use it.”
“Pardon?”
He flips the file closed as he’s standing up. “That’s what we’re gonna say to the rest of the lab scientists, to explain why what they think they saw is not what they really saw, even though you and I both know that that’s exactly what they saw.”
“Okay...”
“You’re free to go,” he says, stepping towards the door, not in a hurry. “Your husband is waiting for you in the parking lot. He’s known something was wrong longer than we have. Please don’t run. We would like to know more, and we promise to be courteous, and...discreet.”
“Who’s we?” she questions.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” He leaves the door open, and begins to walk away coolly.
Leona stays seated for a moment, then she jumps up, and hangs her head over the threshold. “Sir!”
He turns around patiently.
“Welcome to the Masquerade.”
He nods politely, and turns the corner.
That should keep them busy for a while. Now it’s time to run.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: May 29, 2398

Yesterday, Holger forced all the staff into the interstellar spaceship that was under construction, and locked them in there so he and Leona could be alone. He placed the entire facility on lock down, which even prevented the guard topside from getting down. He surely would have noticed that something was wrong fairly quickly. Even if he never needed to reach out to someone in the hangar, he would have wondered why no one was leaving for lunch, and if not then, why did no one go home at the end of the day? Leona didn’t know what was happening up there either, though. Holger cut off all information, and spent the rest of the day trying to get Leona to prove that she too had a teleportation watch like his. When she tried to claim that she didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, he grew frustrated. But he didn’t want to ruin their special day, so he takes his time setting up a candlelit midnight dinner for the two of them, and that’s when he explains what he’s been up to recently.
Holger was unsurprisingly upset about being fired from the lab. Day by day, his anger ballooned, until he couldn’t take it anymore. He didn’t want to grow up and look for a new job. He wanted back in, and he wanted an apology. One might think that he would have gotten over Leona in that time, since she was the reason for his dismissal, but his fixation on her only increased. He wanted her more than ever, and he became convinced that he was entitled to her devotion. This was a game, and she was winning, but all he needed to do was gain an advantage. And the first step in this new mission was to stalk her. He found out where she lived, who she was living with, where she liked to go for breakfast, and everything else about her. He watched her, he watched her husband, and he watched their friends. He had trouble understanding the group dynamic, so he started branching out, and investigating the others in greater depth.
Fortunately, the forger’s forgeries were airtight, so he never discovered that all of their identities were fake, but he did know about Angela. Sure, he wasn’t aware that they were intending to use her to replace Marie as a backup twin, but it was still something they didn’t want out there in the world. He was probably the worst person to know so much information about them. And he wasn’t going to stop here. He kept watching them, eventually following them all the way out to a little town in the middle of Kansas called Lebanon. Here was where things got real interesting.
He watched from a distance as the six of them literally disappeared by the side of the road. Confused but excited, he snuck over to get a better look. No smoke, no mirrors, no hidden passageways. All he found was dirt, grass, and other plants. He situated himself in a foxhole, and kept watching the area, eventually witnessing the group reappear and disappear at will. He didn’t know where they were going, or how they were doing it. It was a puzzle, and Holger Bandoni loves puzzles. He continued to watch them as most of the group left, including Leona. He didn’t stay attached to her, though. He had to remain near the site, because unlocking its secrets was more important at this point.
Mateo and Heath blew a hole in the ground. The former fell in, and the latter fell back. While he was unconscious, Holger ignored him, and made his way down the hole using the emergency ladder. He was shocked by how deep it was, and exhausted by the time he reached the bottom, but it was so worth it. An expanse of living spaces and advanced technology. He had to learn more. While he was alone, he managed to search pretty much every room, ultimately making his way to what he thought might have been a hot tub. It was a beautiful room with blue mosaic tiles, and shimmering light, but the water was cool, and it wasn’t big enough for swimming. But there was something black on the bottom. He dove in and retrieved a box, inside of which was the teleporter watch.
As he was fiddling with it, he suddenly found himself in a different room. He pushed the button again, which transported him to a third room. He kept working with it, learning how to navigate, instead of relying on a random destination. Once he was satisfied with his self-training, he made his way back to the main room, and stood by the debris in the elevator shaft. He pushed the button again, and attempted to jump all the way back to the surface, but could not make it all the way up. As he was falling towards his death, he desperately pressed the button once more, and returned to the floor, but apparently, this form of teleportation preserves momentum, so he still landed hard, breaking his arm in the process. While he still lay there, Heath was making his way down, so Holger crawled into what he believed to be a closet, but was actually a second elevator. He used this to travel back up to the top, ultimately having to use his one good arm to punch through the wall of soil in his way. This finally explains how the McIvers were able to see the alternative means of transport that Heath did not.
Now free, Holger made his way to the nearest hospital, and while he was undergoing treatment, he began to make more plans. He had to wait until Leona returned from her vacation, “and that brings us to today.” He smiles, proud of himself for surviving the harrowing adventure, and pleased to now fully understand who Leona is. “We’re in the same boat now. I have a watch, you have a watch. We can be together.”
“You’re delusional.”
“Uhh, no,” he maintains. “See?” He jumps to the other side of the breakroom.
“No, I mean, you’re delusional about us. “Just because you randomly found a flicker watch, doesn’t mean we’re in love now.”
“Is that what this is called?” He admires the thing.
No, but whatever, haha. She sighs. “What about this are you not getting? I don’t like you. I don’t just not like you in that way. I hate you. I don’t want to ever see you again, or have anything to do with you.”
Holger pouts and mumbles. “Ugh. Harumph. Gaaaah! You obviously wanna stay here with me! You haven’t tried to escape!”
“You locked the exit!” she argues. “I can’t get out!”
“Why don’t you just flicker out! How do you think I got in!”
“I can’t!” Leona pulls down her sleeves, and rolls up her pant legs just for good measure. “They run out of juice!” she lies, sort of. They will eventually run out of power, but they likely last a good few years. “When it’s out, it’s out, and you throw it away.”
“Oh.” He seems to be believing her. “Well, how long do I have?”
“How many times have you used it?” she asks.
“I dunno, maybe a hundred? I hate walking all the way over to my bathroom.”
“Ooo,” she begins. “In this short of time?” She decides to repeat a lie Mateo once told someone. “You’re severely overtaxing it. That thing’s about to blow your wrist off.”
He desperately removes it, drops it on the floor, and hops away with a yelp, so that’s when Leona punches him in the neck.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: May 28, 2398

Leona’s supervisor is not happy. She suddenly took vacation time, but promised to return soon. Then she extended it. Then she extended it again. She didn’t deliver any new data that whole time, so Petra is starting to think that there’s something fishy going on. She’s not rageful, or anything, and she hasn’t already made the decision to fire Leona, but she’s getting there. “You’re back.”
“Yes,” Leona confirms.
“I was beginning to think that you defected to a competitor. I’m still not sure that you haven’t.”
“I haven’t,” Leona says simply.
“Did you have fun on your vacation?”
“It wasn’t a vacation,” Leona reveals. This statement is true in the end, but where the lie begins is the explanation of what she was doing while she was claiming to be on vacation. She drops a tablet on Petra’s desk. “Plans for a tritium extraction facility. This is decades beyond what anyone already has, and once I’m done designing the reactor, we’ll actually be able to do something with all those isotopes you create.”
Skeptical, Petra lifts the tablet, and starts to tour the 3D model. She narrows her eyes in some places, and widens them in others. She then swipes over to the next page, which details specifications and production objectives. This is where she gasps. “Are these efficiency numbers accurate?”
“Completely,” Leona claims. “I’ve been working, I just haven’t been in the office.”
“Why would you keep that a secret? Did you go somewhere?”
Leona doesn’t respond, instead looking like she doesn’t know if she can say anything at all.
“What did you do?” Petra questions, becoming nervous as well.
“I think it’s best if you don’t know. Plausible deniability.”
Petra stands up straighter, and exhales through her nose. “Nothing illegal, I trust.”
Leona bobs her head. “More like...internationally complicated and delicate.”
Petra clears her throat. “You’re right, I don’t wanna know.”
“I’ll probably have to take more trips. I’m not just some genius who randomly came up with this stuff on my own. It’s borne from my experiences, and contacts. Sometimes I might have to reach out to these contacts, or conduct field research.”
“Very well. If you ever need to take time off,” Petra says with airquotes, “then let me know, and now I know that I shouldn’t ask any more questions.”
“You won’t be disappointed,” Leona assures her. She leaves the office, and begins to walk down the stairs when she notices someone she never thought she would ever have to see again, standing on the bottom step, looking up at her. Leona’s former observer—and prolific sexual harasser—who Petra agreed to dismiss three weeks ago, is staring at her menacingly. “How did you get in here?” she asks him impolitely.
Holger Bandoni shows his most evilest grin. Suddenly, he’s standing right in front of her, having somehow teleported up the steps, despite that being unheard of in this reality. He takes her by the shoulders, and tosses her over the edge, only to teleport down just in time to catch her. “Love knows no boundaries. Love walks through walls.”