Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 10, 2368

Hrockas and the Quantum Colony moderator, whose name was Sjualotl, were able to hang out in the quantum terminal in the Pluoraia system for a year without anyone getting suspicious, since disappearing for as long was not uncommon in this time period. They didn’t like it, but to them, it was less of a violation of their rights, and more of a medium-level inconvenience. Now, try to hold them for another year, and things could get dicey. Fortunately for them, the situation should be resolved by then. When the team returned to the timestream after their interim year, they immediately prepared to cast themselves to their next destination, which would hopefully give them answers as to what this whole rat maze immersion game was all about, and whether it was ends-justify-the-means understandable, or totally nefarious.
Teagarden was a terrestrial planet of comparable surface gravity to Earth. It orbited its red dwarf host star in a matter of days. Teegarden’s Star was named after one of its discoverers, and this obviously inspired the planet’s name too, like many other colony worlds in the stellar neighborhood. There was technically a second terrestrial planet in the same system, but it was far less hospitable than Teagarden, so it was reserved primarily for resource mining. Make no mistake, like nearly every other damn exoplanet in the neighborhood, Teagarden was not naturally habitable either; its Terrestrial Habitability Similarity Index rating being far below something that people called open sky standards, which was exactly as it sounded. If you couldn’t stand on the surface without a vacuum suit and breathe on your own, it didn’t have an open sky. Teagarden was a particularly poor candidate for geoengineering, which meant it would probably never have an open sky. As far as the neighborhood radius went, only Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida fell into the first class, though with enormous caveats, while Bungula was the only one in the second. Planets like Pluoraia were far, few between, and coveted.
Teagarden’s population was complicated. It was not open for colonization, but limited to those selected, or approved, for very specific purposes. Colony was probably a strong word for it, and perhaps should have always been called an outpost. Notably, it was designated predominantly for military personnel. This military was unlike anything Earth had in previous eras. There were no more nation states, paramilitary operations, separatist radicals, or corporate security firms. There was the greater good, and there was the individual, and the only time any sort of authority was called to action was if one threatened the other, or themselves internally. As of yet, no two planets harbored any hostile sentiments towards each other, but that was not outside the realm of possibility. The Teagarden Fleet was created in order to be ready to quell any such eventuality, should it ever come to pass. That was why they built it on another planet; so that it did not appear to have any preference over any one world. Technically, soldiers were being trained to fight against some kind of alien threat as well, but a few of the higher ups had relationships with time travelers, who assured them that true aliens did not exist.
“Is that all?” Olimpia asked once the presentation was over.
“I hope not, this is fascinating,” Angela said.
“I think that’s all you need to know to get your answers,” Sjualotl said. She was being a cooperative hostage, and God willing, not lying.
“Well, we need to know how they’re going to react when we show up,” Leona said.
“I can help with that,” Ramses said.
“Something that Team Keshida told you in one of your secret correspondences, no doubt,” Mateo sort of joked.
“They weren’t secret, I just didn’t mention them,” Ramses defended himself. “I figured you weren’t telling me about your conversations either; not just that you weren’t having them. And no, not with Keshida. Hokusai and Loa, they also had relationships with Teagarden, and the Earthan government. There’s a protocol for making contact, which will allow us to jump the line, and speak directly to someone who knows what we are, and what we do.” He didn’t say anything else.
“Okay,” Leona urged. “What’s the protocol?”
“Oh, these three don’t need to know it.” Ramses gestured towards Sasha, Hrockas, and Sjualotl.
“Oh, honey, I was in charge of your communications, I know everything already,” Sasha said.
“Fine, those two.”
“Agreed,” Mateo said, defending Ramses too. “You’ll take point on this one.”
Angela took a half step towards Sjualotl. “This is all long as she’s being honest with us, and people with guns don’t kill us as soon as we wake up in the pods on the other side.”
“She’s telling the truth,” Kivi revealed. “I’ve been there. of me has.”
“Anything to elaborate on?” Leona asked.
“Nah, I wasn’t there long,” Kivi answered.
“Anyway,” Ramses began, “if they do shoot us, our minds will just revert to our real bodies. There’s a difference between an avatar cast, and a full cast.”
“That’s, um—uhh,” Sjualotl said before regretting even making a peep.
“What?” Leona demanded. “Tell us.”
“A long time ago there was this movie called Surrogates,” Sjualotl continued, knowing that backpedaling now would just make things worse for her.
“I just watched that,” Olimpia said in excitement. “This will be the first time my consciousness has ever occupied another body, so it seemed fitting.”
Mateo looked over at Ramses, unsure whether he had ever done it either.
His friend picked up on his psychic message, and nodded his head. He was from what Mateo would call the future, but not this far down the timeline. He must have done it for some reason other than visiting another planet.
“Well, there’s a plot point in that movie where someone has a weapon that can kill casters. It doesn’t just kill the surrogate body, but the mind of the person who is occupying it at the time. Teagarden has that, and no one else knows, and I probably shouldn’t be telling you.”
Angela shook her head to dismiss the concern. “So, if we’re killed in the Matrix, we die in real life. How is that any worse than the risks we take every single day?”
“She has a good point,” Mateo said.
Sjualotl shrugged it off. “Okay.”
“All right, on that note, Sasha...?” She clapped her hands once. “Load the program.”
The six of them cast their consciousnesses to avatar substrates in one of Teagarden’s many quantum terminals. They normally wouldn’t be able to get past the access restrictions, but Ramses knew how to break through as part of that protocol Hokuloa taught him. When they woke up in the pods, just as Angela warned, people with guns had those guns trained on each one of their heads. They instinctively held up their hands to show themselves as a non-threat.
Ramses was coolest of all. “Dougnanimous Brintantalus,” he uttered with feeling. Mateo wasn’t sure why he could tell that it was Ramses, since they were all now wearing the exact same base model, but when he looked at him, he just knew that it couldn’t be anyone else.
“Oh my God,” Leona whispered to herself. Her influence upon the timeline stretched further than she ever considered possible.
Some of the soldiers twitched, and some of them didn’t, but they all fell down like they were dead.
“What did you do to them?” Olimpia asked. She knelt down and checked one’s pulse. “She’s dead.”
“The body is empty,” Ramses clarified. “She’s not dead. She’s just in her own body, and asleep.”
“I didn’t come up with that trust password with the intention of it being used as a weapon,” Leona argued.
“And it’s not a weapon,” Ramses retorted. “Did you notice some of them twitched? Those people were cast back to their bodies, and placed under a deep sleep, while the others were already in their own bodies, so they fell asleep right here. But everybody’s fine, and we’re not gonna get caught.”
“Why didn’t anything happen to us?” Olimpia questioned.
“Because I helped load the transfer program,” Ramses replied. “The six of us are immune.”
“Seven.” A seventh base model crawled out of a pod, and like everyone else, Mateo could just tell that it was Hrockas.
“What are you doing here?” Leona asked.
“I want answers too,” Hrockas claimed. “I’m not like Sjualotl, I didn’t know what was going on. If I had, I wouldn’t have played the game. Please, just let me help you figure this out.”
Leona was about to argue, but Mateo felt compelled to speak first. “We have a shorthand, and we trust each other, so just stay out of our way, and do everything we say. If any one of the six of us gives you an order, you just do it, okay?”
“I can do that,” Hrockas said.
“Now,” Mateo went on, “how long does it take for our DNA to change our new bodies to reflect what we actually look like?”
“If we had uploaded our genetic information to the program,” Ramses began, “a few days.”
“Okay, well...fine. Where to next?”
“I know who we should reach out to,” Kivi said. “Follow me, but allow me to get my bearings first as I was here physically before, and never had to visit the casting room.”
Kivi and Ramses consulted each other, and looked for the right path. They led the team in the wrong direction a few times, but eventually found the right place. It was the office of a nonbinary coordinator named Kennedy Avantan. Kivi knocked, and then whispered that she ought to do the talking. Kennedy opened it, and displayed no reaction to their arrival, because they looked like a set of identical septuplets. “I’m Kivi Bristol.”
“Wait here,” Kennedy said. They closed the door for a moment before returning with what looked strikingly like a noninvasive thermometer. They scanned Kivi’s eye with it, and assessed the results. “Okay, come on in.”
Their main office was not large enough for all of them, so Kennedy led them to another door, where a conference room sat empty. Everyone took their place around the table.
“What are you doing here in a base model?” Kennedy asked. “Where are you?”
Kennedy took a moment to think about it, but wasn’t sure they were familiar. They took out a tablet and searched for it. “Is one of you Hrockas Elindir?”
Hrockas raised his hand.
“So you’ve become aware of the program,” Kennedy rightly assumed.
“Kennedy,” Kivi started, “I came to you for help, because I thought you would be a good point of contact. I didn’t believe you would have anything to do with this Quantum Colony game that toys with people’s lives.”
That was not my idea,” Kennedy insisted. “Only a handful of us are involved in the program. Only we know what the game really is. Many in the braintrust—I suppose you could call it—wanted QC to be limited to uninhabited planets. But there was this whole debate about what inhabited even means. If we find microbes, is that okay? What about vegetation? Where’s the line? I mean, most people understand that there’s a pretty big line between a planet with life on it, and a planet with intelligent and evolved life on it, but those were nuances that some of us were not willing to entertain. In the end, the other side won, and we decided to let players visit worlds that are part of Operation Starseed. They did agree to draw the line at truly alien populations, but...” They sort of stared into space with disappointment. “...we’ve not found any of those, as I’m sure you’re all aware. I imagine the rest of you are time travelers, like Kivi?”
“We are,” Leona replied. “Does everyone in this braintrust know about us?”
“No, just me and one other person,” Kennedy replied. “It’s rather a coincidence that the two secrets intersect in this office. There’s probably another time travel-aware person on this planet who also happens to be privy to military secrets that I know nothing about.”
“Okay,” Leona said. “Let’s get back to what matters. What’s the point of the program? Artificial intelligences were sent to all of the colonies to build quantum terminals, and other structures. Why do you need anyone to cast their consciousnesses to these worlds, be they aware of the truth, or not?”
“Why do we need any crew on colony ships? Why am I in the position I’m in? Why does any human, or descendant of humans, do anything ever? We don’t have to work anymore. AIs and robots could handle literally everything for us. But if we were to take that route, we wouldn’t be anything but children. We sent people to the colonies, because that’s what the colonies are for.”
“I thought they weren’t colonies,” Leona contended, “but outposts.”
“Again, what’s the point of an outpost if no one goes there. Look, let me try to explain it another way.” They considered their argument. “Every AI that we sent on a seed plate for Project Stargate had a singular directive. Land on an orbital, build certain structures, synthesize data, and then just go dormant. None of them is creative, none of them has an explorer’s spirit. They do the work they’re programmed to do, and can only overcome obstacles that get in the way of their goals. They don’t try new things, and come up with interesting ideas. The people in Quantum Colony have picked up where the AIs leave off. One player is constructing a Dyson swarm with a design that none of us would have thought of.” She indicated herself, plus all of her colleagues. “Another is altering the orbit of a super-terrestrial to both shed mass, and lower its surface gravity, and put it within its host star’s habitable zone. The game is a way to attract people to whom it never would have occurred to work in these fields. They’re figuring it out, because—aside from the Starseed worlds—there aren’t many consequences for their actions. If we had told them it was real, they would hold back, and not take risks.”
“Someone took a big risk, and it got people killed,” Leona said accusingly.
“What are you talking about?” Kennedy probably didn’t know what happened to Pluoraia. They only read the surface information about it on their tablet.
Before anyone could answer them, more people with guns burst into the conference room, and surrounded them. “I didn’t think they would catch us this quickly,” Ramses lamented.

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