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Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 8, 2246

When a future version of Arcadia Preston—who was evidently good now, and using her not-so-gentle nature to protect various other universes from the white monsters of Ansutah—asked Mateo if he could handle tricking her past self, he was confident he could. The crew of the Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez had this whole plan lined up. They didn’t know when she was going to show up on their ship, but they were pretty sure she’d time it to not be there until Mateo returned to the timestream. She would be focusing all of her attention on Mateo, and perhaps Cassidy, since she was a pretty perceptive person, and would likely pick up on the tension between them. She would be wary of Weaver too, since Holly Blue could theoretically invent something to defeat Arcadia. No one really knew if she had any limits. Goswin and Thor were thusly the safest. Neither of them would be on Arcadia’s radar, but since Thor had some experience kicking ass, he was the obvious choice.
Surprisingly, Thor agreed without question to be the secret attacker. He didn’t much like Mateo, nor anyone else really, but he might have had a bit of a hero complex. He knew that, if anyone was strong enough to get the jump on someone powerful enough to alter reality with a thought, it was him. He was free to choose his moment, but once he decided, he had to commit. He was to sneak up behind her while her attention was on Mateo, and jam the memory-altering drug into the back of her neck. It apparently worked a little bit like the flashy thingies in the Men in Black franchise. The solution contained Arcadia’s sister’s sweat, so it could draw memories from alternate realities, but in order for that to take hold, they had to get rid of the real memories. And the only way to do that was to reinforce the false ones with spoken word. After Thor did his thing, Goswin was going to use his diplomatic experience to weave a story about how Arcadia had come here to punish Mateo for having crashed his own wedding in the past. He didn’t have to be too specific about what she thought she had done to him, because her brain would fill in the rest, but he had to be convincing.
None of this truly worked, and it was almost as if Arcadia knew all of it was coming. Once she appeared, she was immediately drawn to Mateo, and started asking him about who Cassidy was. So she didn’t seem to know everything about the timeline, which was at least a small miracle. Thor came up behind her, quiet as a mute mouse, and stuck the jet injector into her neck. She did indeed act like she felt it, but Nerakali’s sweat wasn’t the only ingredient in it. There were also good old narcotics, which caused her to be loopy and agreeable, and also immediately forget having received the injection at all. Goswin spun his tale, and she accepted it. Then she smiled triumphantly, and declared victory over Mateo. He would never do anything like that again. They never did learn what she thought she had done to him, but it was not anywhere not over. Following her obnoxious gloating, Arcadia tipped an invisible hat, and disappeared. Then she reappeared, from the ladder that led to the engineering section.
Arcadia climbed all the way up the ladder, and started clapping. “Brilliant performance. You had me completely fooled. I really moved on, believing I had punished you, when really, nothing happened at all.”
Dammit. “You get your memories back, sometime later,” Mateo guessed.
Arcadia shook her head. “No. The Arcadia that whoever that guy over there is assaulted really did get false memories. She will never get the right ones. She is going to move on with her expiations on Tribulation Island. Then she’s going to be recruited into the Prototype team, and start killing Maramon with her bare hands in other universes throughout the bulkverse.”
“But she’s not you?” Cassidy asked.
“Quiet,” Mateo whispered. The target on Cassidy’s back was there, simply because Arcadia knew she existed, but they didn’t need to paint another coat, and make it easier to spot.
Unfortunately, of course, Arcadia also picked up on Cassidy’s concern. She didn’t do anything about it yet, though. She just moved on, for now. “No. I was worried. I honestly don’t know what’s happening here. What is this ship? Where are you going? How did you come back into existence after the Superintendent wrote you out of the story? These are the questions I have no answer to now, but I’m not super worried about it either. I didn’t know you would do what you did, but I thought you might try something. Weaver is what tipped me off. I can tell she’s not from this reality, which means she’s not the same naïve young woman who doubts her every move. This Weaver,” she said, pointing to the subject, “is dangerous. She could hurt me, which means I didn’t know what I was walking into. I figured my best bet was to create a quantum duplicate of myself, and watch her initial interaction with you from a safe distance.”
“You’re telling me there are two Arcadias in this reality?” Mateo asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “I never really wanted to do that. People who know me know that I like to be unique, so I’m not in love with the idea of there being some shittier version of me running around here, but fortunately, she doesn’t last much longer. I intend to never return to any time period any other version of me has experienced before. I don’t know what I plan to do with my life, or how you fit into that, but I can tell you that we’re going to have a nice little expiation for you. At least one.”
Arcadia snapped her fingers, and they were suddenly standing on the ground. They didn’t stand for long, though, before gravity overwhelmed them. Mateo felt heavier than he ever had before. “What is this?” he struggled to ask. “I’m being crushed.”
“This...” Arcadia said, still standing, “is Varkas Reflex. It is a super-Earth, and unless you jump into some water, or stand in a mesh dimension, like I am, you’re gonna have a bad time. Right now, your hearts are working overtime to pump blood throughout your respective bodies, and you’re all alive, because those hearts are presently moderately successful at this. Sadly, they will experience diminishing returns, and eventually give out. Your brains will run out of oxygen, and you will die.” She stood in silence for a moment.
No one could speak.
Arcadia waved her hand, and released them from the torture. “But..I don’t want you to die yet. Maybe never. I still need to find out who you are.” She eyed Cassidy.
“Leona is here,” Mateo slipped. Arcadia already knew this, but he didn’t need to point it out.
“Yeah, but you won’t see her. Before you get your hopes up, not being able to see Leona today is not your punishment. It’s just a pleasant bonus for me. No, this will be just like any other expiation, except you’ll only have one day to complete it. Plus, I’m making you choose. Don’t argue, or I’ll make it worse. Whose expiation do you want to complete? Who do you want me to rip out of time, possibly forever?”
This was an impossible choice, but Mateo knew he had to think quickly, or she would get bored, and a bored Arcadia is a scary Arcadia. He cared about everyone here, even Thor. He didn’t know any of them incredibly well, but that didn’t make it any easier to choose. He had to think, though—not who he would rather never see again, but whose challenge would be the easiest to complete. He couldn’t choose Cassidy, because Arcadia would have to look into who Cassidy was to come up with a challenge. Sure, she would probably only make Mateo give everyone else a lapdance, which they would survive, but he wanted to keep Cassidy as safe as possible, for as long as possible. Thor was a runner, but he also helped build colonies on other worlds in Earth’s solar system, so that could get complicated. Weaver was too damn smart, so Arcadia would probably want them to engineer some crazy, complex device from scratch, like when she made them create a map of time and space. They would too easily lose that challenge. What would they have to do to get Goswin back? Give a speech? Moderate a peace summit?
In the end, there was only one good answer, and Mateo hoped she would allow it. He had already not existed for a long time, and knew he could do it again. If his friends weren’t able to succeed in the expiation, this was the least of many evils. It was the least by a lot, because Mateo rarely existed anyway, and when he did, he couldn’t contribute positively to the AOC’s operation. This whole thought process took about ten seconds for Mateo to go through. “Mine.”
Arcadia was only half surprised by this. “I kind of thought you might say that. I considered excluding you as a possibility, because I don’t want you to disappear for good. As you know, I’m not a great person, but I do follow my own rules. If I don’t account for everything, and you find a loophole, I have always honored that, haven’t I?”
She was right; she always had. She never punished them for finding a way to let Leona and Paige use sentimental objects to remember loved ones who were taken out of time. She didn’t separate Mateo from Lincoln, when she realized he too kept his memories. Arcadia was a jerk, but she didn’t lie, and she didn’t go back on her word. “You have, so I expect you to retain that honor. You gave me the responsibility to choose, and you never said I couldn’t choose myself...so I choose myself.”
Arcadia took in a deep breath, and let it out. “Very well. Your friends will have to do something for the entire year, until you return to the timestream. Unlike other expiations, I won’t judge their success or failure myself. You will come back on November 9, 2247, regardless of what they do. The challenge is that they have to last long enough for you to survive when you come back. Their failure could even mean the destruction of your ship, because I won’t just be making them all forget who you are. They won’t even know that someone is missing, or that something is expected of them. They won’t know goddamn anything. I’m going to erase all of their memories. I’m going to make them practically as dumb as you. Let’s see how they fare.”
They fared beautifully.

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