Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: Thursday, July 14, 2129

Leona was sitting in the visitor’s room. It looked just like a prison would in the real world, with people talking to their loved ones, some in hushed tones, others not so much. There were a few key differences. Touching was not allowed, and down on Earth, this would be enforced by correctional officers. That wasn’t necessary here, as prisoners were coded to become holographic under certain conditions. They were apparently allowed to touch each other if they wanted to high-five, or engage in a bit of athletic competition, but they would pass right through each other if they tried to fight. In this case, the principle held when it came to this particular section. That was fine for Leona; she didn’t know Angela well enough for human touch to mean anything, but it was heartbreaking to see everyone else make their fruitless attempts.
“Oh, hello.” Angela was being escorted into the room. She was completely chained up, from her ankles to her wrists, and all the way up to a collar around her neck.
“Is that necessary?” Leona asked the guard.
“Ma’am, I’m just an NPC, I can’t make decisions.” That was a strikingly unsettling thing to hear from a computer program.
“I can make decisions,” Leona said authoritatively. “Remove them.”
“Ma’am, like I said, I can only do what I’ve been programmed to do.”
“Then you need new programming.”
“That would be nice.” He was programmed to know that he was just a program, a.k.a. a slave, and Leona could not stand for it.
Leona started tapping on her simulated Cassidy cuff. Pryce had designed it to be exactly like the real ones, and the real ones...could be hacked. “I was saving my first exploit for something important, and I think this counts.” Once she was finished with the sequence, she slid her finger along the interface screen, and flicked it towards the NPC guard.
He blinked, and shook his head. “I feel...lighter. I’”
“Let’s test that theory,” Leona said. “Remove her chains.”
He took a second to check to make sure his simulated brain was even processing the command properly. Then he took out a key, and started undoing Angela’s chains.
Angela leaned forward as he was working on them, and whispered to Leona, “won’t you get in trouble for that.”
“Pryce wants to see how we survive with what we’ve been given,” Leona began to explain. “It’s a game to him, and he wants to follow his own rules. I’m capable of doing this. Therefore, I am allowed to do it.”
Angela started massaging her own wrists as they sat down together. “I much appreciate it. They’ve kept them on all the time.”
“You’re wearing cuffs too, though, so you’ve been skipping time.”
“Yes,” Angela confirmed. “The other inmates are none too pleased by it. I travel by isolation prints.”
“Isolation prints?”
“Footprints painted on the floor. If you walk on them, no one can harm you, but they’re hard to stay on. I do a lot of hopping and twisting.”
“I thought—I was told that fighting was impossible in here.”
“That’s what they tell the freemen, to make them feel okay about leaving us to rot. There’s a lot of fighting. You can earn sensory patches to stop it from hurting. There’s a woman in here who gets people creature comforts. She has some way to edit code, kind of like your cuff, I guess. Anyway, people pay her in their pain dampeners, so she can’t feel anything she doesn’t want to.”
“Can’t she just hack her own code to conjure pain dampeners anyway?”
“You’re right. Maybe she just wants her customers to give them up. You can’t steal a pain patch.”
Leona sighed. “We’re gonna take care of you. I can’t give you details, because obviously we’re always under surveillance, but you won’t wear orange forever.”
“I’m told that orange is the new black. People laugh when someone says that, but I’m afraid I don’t understand the meaning.”
“It’s a pop culture reference,” Leona told her, “a very old one.”
Angela nodded. “We have books and movies that they made on Earth, but I never spent much time catching up when I was on the outside. I was always just trying to improve my station in afterlife.” She looked around, so she could indicate the general environment. “I shouldn’t have been so obsessed. As soon as I got my indigo clothes, I should have left it at that, and tried to enjoy my life.
Leona shook her head. “This wasn’t you. This was us, and like I was saying, we’re gonna fix it.”
Angela wasn’t getting her hopes up, but she understood that arguing would only lead to Pryce figuring out their plan. He would have it already if Leona and her friends didn’t have a way of communicating with each other outside of his purview. Speaking of which, she ought to be getting back to it, so she could pass along all the details she learned about the prison section of this world. She said her goodbyes, hacked the code with her cuff one more time, so she could give Angela a proper hug, and left with apologies to everyone who just saw her do that.
Leona stepped through the back door of her apartment, and entered VioletSpace. Everyone else was already there, waiting for her, including the creator of this world. He was Level 10 Unrestricted; the highest and rarest level in the entire simulation. He never earned this spot, but was automatically awarded it by Pryce, simply by having had time powers in the real world. He liked to call himself the Purple Pirate, but Leona preferred to use his real name, Gilbert Boyce.
“How are we lookin’?” he prompted.
“It’s awful there,” Leona divulged, “we have to act now.”
“We can’t,” Sanaa said with a shake of her head. “We’re not ready. Boyce has one chance to do something big. Once Pryce figures him out, it’ll be over.”
“Pryce isn’t supposed to be able to demote someone from Level 10,” Ellie argued. “If he gave him the violet clothes, he can’t take them away. That’s how we designed it, so we couldn’t turn on each other.”
“You think he follows those same rules?” Sanaa questioned.
“He follows a set of rules,” Leona compromised. “We can’t be sure which ones he incorporated from before you left the group, and which ones he abandoned. But I will tell you this, I hacked an NPC today, and gave it a directive to go against Pryce’s wishes. The NPC complied, and I just spent an hour in that world with no retaliation.”
“He may be waiting for his moment,” Sanaa warned.
“Wait,” J.B. jumped in. “We don’t know what Mateo is doing on Earth. We can’t do anything until he reconnects, and can safely enter the secret world.” This world was located on a hidden partition of the simulation that siphoned very little power, and was built and run by Gilbert, using his unrestricted access. He was confident that Pryce would have no way of getting into it, at least not virtually. But that didn’t mean he would be shit out of luck, as Sanaa was about to point out.
“As soon as Mateo’s consciousness tries to enter the back door, Pryce is gonna see it, and he’s gonna find the partition, and he’s gonna destroy it. Maybe he can’t turn a Level 10 into a Level 1, but he can sure turn us into a Level 0. He’s physical, guys, don’t forget that. He has his own body, on whatever planet he built this thing on, and he walks around freely. He could destroy every one of the billions of people who live in here with a good, hearty bat.”
“I can get Mateo into this world,” Gilbert assured her. “I just need time. Nothing needs to happen immediately. I’m not saying we wait decades, but maybe Pryce is a little too on edge right now, and we would do better to let him let his guard down before we make our move?”
“Can’t we just get Angela out of prison right now, and hide her in your world before we do whatever it is we’re gonna do to stop Pryce?” Leona suggested.
“I think I could probably swing that,” Gilbert agreed with a nod, “but we have to make some decisions first. Either I go out there myself, and expose myself to the main code, or I convert one or more of you into Level 8, so that you’re powerful enough to break her out of prison. Either way, he sees it happen, and you’ll have to stay in VioletSpace with me and Miss Walton.”
Madam Walton,” Sanaa corrected. “She married, but kept her original name.”
“Forgive me.”
“I’ll do it,” Leona volunteered.
“You can’t do it,” Ellie contended. “You have to stay in the main world for when Mateo contacts you again.”
“He can talk to you instead. This is important to me. I feel personally responsible for Angela’s situation.”
“We were all there,” Sanaa argued. “We all want her out, and we all want to get back to our lives. This isn’t all on your shoulders, Leona.”
“I have an idea.” None other than Nerakali Preston appeared out of the shadows, and approached their meeting table.
“Nerakali!” Leona exclaimed. “You’re here? When did you die?”
“Twenty-one-oh-seven,” Nerakali answered. “So it was it shall have been done.”
“That’s right,” Leona realized. “You were hundemarked. How long were you able to stave off your inevitable death?”
Nerakali had become a much nicer and better person since they first met her in the 21st century. They didn’t become friends with her until after the date of her death, but like Gilbert Boyce, once they did, they couldn’t think of many they felt they trusted more. The Warrior was utilizing the hundemarke when he killed her in 2107, so nothing could be done to undo it, but that didn’t mean she had to die right away. She literally walked up to her death from the sidewalk, and though she would eventually have to take every single step to meet her destiny, she was always able to time travel somewhere else before each one. Whenever her life was in danger, time itself would send her back to take one more step, because letting her die anywhere other than that house on Tribulation Island would cause a paradox. This version of Nerakali here had already experienced every step, and there was no telling how much she had been through until now. “Every longs,” she joked. “All the long.”
“Well, we can save you,” Gilbert explained. “There’s a way out; a way to be resurrected, and it doesn’t violate hundemarke rules.”
She smiled at him like he was a child who didn’t understand why he couldn’t eat chocolate for every meal. “Not for me. I have a...second destiny.”
“What do you mean?” Leona questioned.
Nerakali reached down and pulled the hundemarke from between her breasts. Of course those were fake breasts, and it was a fake hundemarke, because this was a simulation, and none of it was real. Nothing in here worked unless someone programmed it, and even then, it still could not be considered real.
“So what? That’s just a few bytes of code.”
“I know,” Nerakali agreed. “I wear it as a symbol. I have done everything I wanted to do in the real world, and one day, that will be true of this world. I am going to die. My consciousness will be destroyed permanently. This is how I want it, and helping you save your friend is the next step I take towards that end.”
“No.” Leona couldn’t accept that. “You don’t have to die. Nobody has to die. Tamerlane Pryce may be an asshole, but we have to give him credit for this. He did save everyone in history for thousands of years, and there is no reason to change that. All we’re trying to do is remove him from power, not take down the system.”
“I’m not trying to do that either,” Nerakali promised. “This is a personal decision. Now, let me do this for you.”
“Do what?” Sanaa asked. “Are you going to break Angela out of prison?”
“No, Leona’s going to do that,” Nerakali answered. “It’s what she wants, and I will honor that. It’s the least I could do. I will be burning my own identity in the process, so she doesn’t have to burn hers. Mr. Rogue, recode her avatar. Make her look like me.”
“That won’t be easy,” Gilbert explained. “I mean, I can make her look like anything you want—a taco that poops ice cream—but that will only disguise her against the other residents. She will not be invisible to Pryce, because he doesn’t just see the avatars; he sees their code. Everyone has a unique base code, and messing with that would be tantamount to murder. If you’re not who you’ve become over time, up to this moment, then you’re someone else, and that former you is dead.”
“There’s a way, though,” Nerakali pressed, “without altering her base code. You can engineer something that makes her look like me, even when scrutinized by Pryce himself.”
Gilbert sighed, and took a few beats. “Yeah, it’s possible. Like I said, it won’t be easy, and I can’t just snap my fingers. It will take time, and the fact that you’re skipping interim years makes that more complicated.”
“Then you better get on it,” Nerakali told him. “The longer we wait, the more time The Genius, Mateo Matic has to barge in here and screw everything up.”
It was a little mean, and a little more like the old Nerakali, but it wasn’t entirely accurate, or unfair.
“I will begin immediately,” Gilbert began, “after a vote.”

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