Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 9, 2367

When they returned to the timestream, all the locals were confused about where they had been for the last nine and a half months, but they were also preoccupied with a second shocking development. Shortly after their departure, another alien came down to their world from the quantum terminal. He claimed to be from a planet called Teagarden, and during the interim year, Sasha had been trying to explain to him that this was all real, instead of a video game of some kind. She thought that maybe the humans would have better luck with the clarification, though it would be best if it took place back up on the outpost. The Pluoraians didn’t need to have anything to do with this. Fortunately, she had fixed the teleporter. They escaped the hellish winterscape, hoping never to return.
“What’s your name?” Mateo asked, deciding to take lead on this interrogation.
“Hrockas. Yours?”
“Mateo and Leona Matic, Ramses Abdulrashid, Angela Walton, Olimpia Sangster. And...Sasha.”
“Sasha, I’ve met.”
“What are you doing on this planet?” Mateo went on.
“This is my planet,” Hrockas said. “I laid claim to it thirty years ago. I don’t know how you broke through my quantum restrictions, but I want you gone.”
“You didn’t tell him?” Mateo asked Sasha.
“It wasn’t my place,” Sasha replied. “I didn’t want him to commandeer it. Besides, he wasn’t listening to reason. As soon as he found out I was an android, I stuck his fingers in his ears.”
That was probably the right call on Sasha’s part. Even now, Mateo didn’t know if he should explain how it was they arrived without casting their consciousnesses using the quantum terminal. “We came in a ship.”
“That’s impossible. No one has access to lightspeed ships in the game,” Hrockas insisted.
“What game are we talking about here?” Mateo pressed. They were going to have to clear this up by starting at the beginning.
Hrockas looked at him like he was a total moron. “Umm...Quantum Colony; the game we’re literally playing right now? Ever heard of it?”
“No, I haven’t. I’m more of an RPS-101 Plus guy.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, idiot! You’re in it! That’s how we’re even talking! I want answers to a few questions. Who are you? How did you get here? What did you do to the power a few years ago? Why did you bring it back? And when the hell are you gonna get the hell out of my star system? I found it; it’s mine. If you want it, you’ll have to start a war. I don’t like your chances. I have a pretty good army down there, and they’re all loyal to me!”
“The people down there never once mentioned a Hrockas,” Leona pointed out.
“Well, they don’t know me by name. The creators will kick me out of the game if I break First Contact protocols.”
“Why do they care if it’s just a game?” Mateo asked.
Hrockas shrugged. “I dunno, they have their reasons. Any player who finds an inhabited world has to follow more strict rules. Everybody knows this.”
This reminded Mateo of the time they had to convince a couple of scientists that The Parallel was a fully real reality, and not just an incredibly elaborate simulation. Something told him that Hrockas wasn’t going to be swayed by the same evidence. They needed help figuring that out, and to do that, they needed more information. “Sasha, could you please find out what this Quantum Colony thing is?”
“Accessing,” Sasha said.
“Anyone else heard of it?” No one had. “Leona?” He singled out specifically. “Ramses? No?”
They shook their heads again in confirmation.
Sasha began to regurgitate the information, “Quantum Colony is a stellar neighborhood-wide role-playing immersion game that takes place as far into the galaxy from Gatewood as any interstellar ship has been capable of reaching since the launch of Project Stargate in the year 2250. Players are expected to solve math equations to seek out new worlds that have been settled upon by quantum outposts. Once they cast their avatars to these systems, they are free to establish territory, build new structures, conduct research, initiate relations with other players and their worlds, and in a select few cases, carefully foster a native population of humans, aliens, or source variants.
“Leona?” he asked again simply.
“Well, I knew they were still trying to figure out what the hell they were going to do with all the data that Project Stargate and Project Topdown sent back, but we never found out the answer. There are hundreds of billions of star systems out there. I suppose one way to synthesize that data would be to...crowdsource it.”
“But they’re lying to the players,” Olimpia noted with airquotes. “They don’t think it’s real. That’s so unethical. I mean, what if a player starts a war, or something, thinking there are no consequences?”
They looked to Leona again, who still wasn’t sure what the solution would be. “I mean, I didn’t know anyone on Teagarden knew about Project Stargate, let alone had access to it. I can’t imagine that Team Keshida would have authorized something like this. They’re kind of all about secrecy. Ramses, you didn’t hear any whispers about the game?”
“They never said a word,” he answered honestly.
Leona looked at Hrockas. “Why do you think you’re in a simulation? How can you possibly not be able to tell that your consciousness is being actually cast to a base reality location?”
“They said it was designed to feel authentic,” Hrockas said, starting to get worried. “Are you being serious? We’re on a real planet?”
“Well, we’re on an asteroid,” Mateo said, “but yeah, it’s real. We came here in a real ship, and we’ve never heard of the game until now.”
Hrockas averted his gaze from the group, seeking guidance maybe from his god of choice. “I had sex with those people.”
“Excuse me?”
“I thought it was a simulation! Everybody does it. I flew down there in secret, blended in, and interacted with some of the people. Like my real one, this substrate is partially organic, so I still have needs. I mean, it was consensual, though, I didn’t claim to have any power over them. It was just two people, sometimes three or four—”
“Okay, we don’t need the details, thank you.”
Hrockas shook his head in utter despair. “Why would they do this? I guess it would be fine if they locked out all populated worlds, but...some of the others have life; they just don’t have evolved and intelligent life. That can’t be right either.”
“Far be it for any of us to successfully debate such nuanced ethical considerations,” Leona said.
“Who’s them that did this?” Olimpia questioned. “Who on Teagarden would we need to speak to? Is there, like, a company?”
“We don’t have companies anymore, but there is a governing organization,” Hrockas disclosed. “If not all of the members know the truth, at least a portion of them do. If I screw up, a moderator knows, and threatens my account. I bet my moderator is aware.”
“How do we contact them?” Mateo asked.
“Pretty easy,” Hrockas said as he was walking over to one of the base model pods. He reached behind it, and they could hear beeping noises. Then he physically separated the pod from its place, which revealed a second pod in a recess in the wall. It wasn’t a base model, but a unique individual. He flipped a switch from red to green.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, the body woke up, and opened the glass hatch. The apparent moderator climbed out, and oriented herself. She studied the crowd watching her intently. “Hrockas, what did you do?”
“They say this isn’t a game,” he said to her in an accusing tone. “They say this is a real planet, with real people on it.”
She took a beat before responding, surely trying to decide if there was some way for her to maintain the lie, even after all this. There wasn’t. The proverbial cat was out of the bag. She looked up at the clock in the corner of the room. “Time of veil removal, zero-sixteen on March 9, 2367 Earthan Standard. I’ll have to return to Teagarden to give them the news: Phase I is officially over.”
“Screw your return,” Mateo raised his voice a little. “We want answers. What ever gave you the right to treat these people like NPCs?”
The mod breathed in deeply, and fluttered her lips as she exhaled. “Are you kidding me right now? The whole purpose of Project Stargate and Operation Starseed is to run one giant interstellar social experiment. The fact that we’re observing our subjects should come as no surprise to anyone. We always knew the double blind study would end, and transition to a blind study, and then later end completely. We just didn’t know when. Your arrival in apparent physical form has made that day today. Now I have to go back to Teagarden to tell my superiors about this.”
“No, you’re not doing that at all,” Leona argued. “I know how this goes. Your bosses will decide that the experiment hasn’t actually ended, as long as no one here tells anybody else.”
“We’re not murderers,” the mod argued.
“Perhaps you would not see is as murder. Perhaps you wouldn’t have to kill, but exile us to an expendable planet, and destroy the terminal behind us.”
“Don’t give them any ideas, love,” Mateo warned.
“Just so I’m understanding you right,” the mod began, “you’re refusing to allow me to return to Teagarden, and are instead holding me hostage.”
“You’re not a hostage,” Leona contended. “No, we can’t let you go, but we’re not going to use you as a bargaining chip. We don’t even know if they care about you. It’s entirely possible that they’ll scrub the entire solar system, including you, to cover this up. We just don’t have enough information about who you people are. We are close friends with the two individuals who oversaw the automated construction of the seeder ships. We know they did it for the Earthan government at the time, but also that not everyone was privy to the truth. Until we speak to them, no one is going anywhere.”
“I can’t imagine that they’re involved in this,” Mateo noted.
“I don’t understand how they could possibly not know,” Ramses negated.
“Sasha?” Leona asked. “Figure out how to get me into one of those pods, and cast my mind to Gatewood. I’m going to speak with them directly.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Ramses, I’m going to need you to stay here, so you can monitor systems from this end. Sasha, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but...”
“But you don’t trust me,” Sasha finished. “I understand. You can’t offend me, Aunt Leona.”
“I’m going too,” Mateo decided. “I think I know the two of them better than you.”
“Indeed,” Leona admitted. “Sasha?”
“Two pods, coming right up.”
It was a lot more difficult than Sasha presumed. The pods themselves were easy, but locating the quantum signature for their target was a bit more involved. A ship traveling at relativistic speeds made the calculations exponentially more complex. Even a reframe engine would throw them off. The first step was figuring out that that was what was happening in the first place. Apparently, the centrifugal cylinders were no longer orbiting Barnard’s Star at all, but on the move to a new destination. In the end, however, she figured it out, and got it working. Leona and Mateo entered the pods, and cast their consciousnesses to Cylinder One, which was evidently somewhere in the middle of interstellar space.
A technician greeted them on the other side, and helped them acclimate to their new environment. This wasn’t the first time they switched substrates, but it was still a little jarring, since they were using a different technique, which maintained their connection to their real bodies. The time difference made it even weirder. Once they were ready, they demanded to see Team Keshida, but the tech shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. We’ve not seen either of them in almost ninety years.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Leona said. “Ramses spoke with them a couple of years ago.”
“Perhaps they were communicating across time,” the tech suggested.
“No, they made reference to something that occurred a couple of years prior.”
“Did they say they were still in the Collective? Because...we weren’t. We left Gatewood almost as long ago.”
“Where are you going?” Mateo asked.
“Torosia,” he answered.
“Never heard of it.”
“I have,” Mateo said. “They used to call it Durus.”
The tech nodded. “We’ve chosen to join forces, and develop a new society of human outcasts.”
“Have you ever heard of something called Quantum Colony?” Leona asked her.
“Is that a band, errr...?”
“All right. Well, thank you for your hospitality, but we’re going to have to cut this short.” She looked to her husband. “We’ll strategize with the team, but I’m pretty sure our next stop will have to be Teagarden.”
They only spent a few minutes on the cylinder, but almost the whole day passed for their team on the outpost, because the Gatewooders were traveling at relativistic speeds. Teagarden would have to wait until next year. It would be up to Sasha to make sure Hrockas or the moderator didn’t try any funny business in the meantime.

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