Sunday, August 14, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 11, 2398

Eleven hours later, the away team was over eight thousand kilometers away. Ramses performed a water landing, then kept The Olimpia in boat mode so they could dock at the marina. A taksi took them over to Bishopsworth Resort, where they spent the night. The concierge was insistent on knowing what time they would be fully awake and dressed in the morning. They were already feeling jet lagged, so they chose 10:00, and when the clock chimed ten times, a crew of waiters burst into their room unannounced, and began to serve them their welcome breakfast. It was shocking, and annoying that no one thought to tell them what would be happening. Perhaps they just assumed everyone would know. They failed to do their research, or rather, Heath did. No matter, the food was good, and they needed to fuel up before the mission. When it was over, they opted to walk back to the marina, where they climbed into their boat, and headed Southeast.
Three hours later, they have made it to reform.belief.paint. They can see all around them forever, but there’s nothing but water, water, and more water. “Does anybody feel anything?” Marie asks. “Do we get the sense that we can teleport again?”
“Not in the least,” Ramses answers.
Apparently the one with the strongest connection to any source of temporal energy, Mateo shuts his eyes and tries to jump all the way back to the entrance to the boat, but he doesn’t move. “Nothing.”
“Hm,” Ramses says. “If anywhere in the world would have it, I would have thought here.”
“Why is that?” Mateo asks. “It’s not really any more special than the pyramids, or Easter Island.”
“Because most of the British Isles are just gone?” Marie says. “That’s weird. It sure as hell sounds like some kind of temporal anomaly. The Great Pyramid of Giza is just sitting there, where it’s supposed to be. We’re not even really sure why it’s special in the first place. But the fact that most of Great Britain doesn’t exist, but some parts of it do...that doesn’t make much sense.”
“True,” Mateo agrees.
“Well, we can’t have come all this way,” Marie begins, “and not at least try to find some clues. There’s only one logical next step.”
Ramses nods, and takes them down as far as this thing can go, but still don’t reach the bottom. If there’s any temporal energy tied to the location of Stonehenge, it’s under too much pressure. It looks like this little side mission is just a dead end. Leona drew a border on the virtual map, so they can maintain their proximity to their target. Mateo keeps trying to jump every once in a while, but nothing happens, not even a hint. The trio keeps thinking that maybe something will surprise them just before they give up, but they continue to sporadically utter defeatist phrases at each other—like “there’s nothing here” or “this is dumb”—yet still nothing changes.
It doesn’t even necessarily have to be time-related. They could resurface to find a band of pirates who want to take them hostage, or a shady government helicopter who has been following them around since the parking lot. But when they break the surface, they find it just as it was before. Water, water, and more water. “I think I’m gonna call it,” Marie declares. “This was a waste of time.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Ramses contends. “We had to come here. If we hadn’t, we would have wondered about it. Now we can check it off the list. That’s the whole point of these little missions. We only have to find one thing that helps us get home.”
Marie nods, appreciating the sentiment. “Let’s go back to the island. We might as well be able to tell Heath that we did the bike tour. He was pretty excited about the prospect of us doing some real vacationy stuff”
Mateo heads towards the stern as Ramses is turning the Olimpia around. Recessed in the walls of the two back cubbies are footholds that lead up to an emergency exit in the ceiling. He opens up the hatch, and climbs outside. He stands on the roof, and continues to look around, hoping to see an ominous dark shadow of a giant creature as it swims underneath them, or a brilliant green whirlpool, or maybe a beacon in the distance. That would be satisfying enough, to rescue a random castaway. But as before, he finds that there is nothing special about this place. It’s just the middle of the ocean on the most boring version of Earth yet. He’s not yet lost hope, because they still have many other locations to test, but it’s sure not a good start. Though, to be fair, it’s not really a start. Magic exists here; The Constant proves it. As Ramses was saying, they have to keep trying, and keep checking things off the list.
After they’re sufficiently far from awaited.passively.landings, he climbs back inside, and hangs out with the other two until they get back to the resort. There they stay for two more nights to finish out their reservation. Island culture is a little bizarre and confusing at times, but overall a lovely experience. Next stop, Prague.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 10, 2398

Today’s the day. Half of the current team roster is going off on a long-term mission across Europe while the other half stays home to take care of things here. Ramses is in the driver’s seat of The Olimpia, while Heath’s regular car follows them down the road. Cars aren’t fully automated, but they can be programmed to stay on the exact same route as the vehicle ahead of them. It’s really just a fancy way of hitching it to the back. Flying cars such as this one are not commonplace, but they still need laws and regulations to operate safely. A driver can take it on any standard road, and float it in any publicly-accessible body of water, but flying is a lot more difficult. They’ll have to launch from an unpopulated area, and fly at a certain altitude, though very specific routes called market corridors. The more rural the area is under the vessel, the wider the corridor. Early versions had to take off from airstrips, but the more advanced ones are built with vertical take-off engines. So that wouldn’t be a problem, they mainly need to get far enough away from the city.
“Don’t we need to play rock, paper scissors?” Marie asks.
Heath stops midway up the steps. “Uh...no.”
“Ramses says he wants to sleep in the control area,” Mateo says, “and I can just use one of these little cubbies. You take the real bed, this isn’t a negotiation.”
“I don’t really like it up there,” Marie claims.
Heath just keeps carrying her bags up to the loft as Mateo chuckles. “Yeah, right.” He approaches her when he sees her frowning at him. “It’s okay for people to take care of you. I know that that was your job in the afterlife simulation, but surely you had your own counselor when you first died.”
“Yes, we did,” Angela confirms. “His name was Þorgeir.”
“I know that name,” Leona says, perking up. “Thor Thompson was named after him.”
“He’s in good company,” Angela decides. She returns her attention to her alternate self. “Take the loft. You know how much we hate to argue.”
Heath is already hanging her expandable shelf bag on the hook against the outside of the shower room wall. “Thank you,” she says to the group.
“We’re here!” Ramses shouts all the way from the front. They’re in the middle of nowhere outside Independence, facing the Missouri River. “It’s a beautiful day, and this is a beautiful area! Let’s all say our goodbyes before we lose the daylight!” He comes to a stop, turns the hazards on, and comes to the back.
“How long is the first leg?” Mateo asks him.
“That depends on exactly where we’re going,” Ramses answers.
Leona projects a map of their itinerary onto the lav door. The first stop on their fake vacation is Foggy Londontown. It occurs to Mateo that he still doesn’t really understand how the U.S. works in this reality, but he really doesn't know how other countries work. What might be waiting for them when they land? The entire island of the United Kingdom does not exist, for reasons they still don’t yet know. They’ll be investigating that in the coming few days. What they discovered is that a few small islands do indeed exist in the area where Great Britain should be, and they may hold answers. “Okay, the coordinate system is a little different here, which means it took some doing to draw from my own memory of main sequence geography, but I believe I’ve found the approximate location of Stonehenge, or rather the analog. Perhaps fittingly, if the mysterious rock formation existed here, it would be found at awaited.passively.landings. That’s my best guess.”
“Await-a-what?” Angela asks.
“The traditional numerical coordinate system was abandoned centuries ago, in favor of a lexical geocoding algorithm.”
“A-lexa-what?” Angela presses.
“A unique series of three random words are designated for a given square on the map, which can be shared and pinpointed using proprietary mapping software,” she says, which is just about as confusing. “For instance, where the Olimpia happens to be parked right now, we’re located at clashing.thrill.ultra.”
Ramses shows a nonchalant sort of pouty face. “I did that on purpose,” he jokes.
Leona rolls her eyes “Well, each square is three meters wide, and the vehicle is sixteen meters long, so where you were sitting up there is closer to yawned.nephew.custard.”
“Yeah,” Ramses insists, “I love custard.”
“Where am I?” Mateo asks, stepping towards the seats.
“You’re at telegrams.patch.card.”
“Where’s that tree?” Angela offers, pointing out the window.
“Uh, I believe culprit.triads.enrolling.”
“Where is I.love.you?” Mateo asks, trying to be cute.
Leona tries it. She even substitutes the word eye for I. “Doesn’t exist; not all word permutations do.”
“Oh,” Mateo is sad. “Well, what about—”
“You heard Ramses,” Heath interrupts. “You three better get going so you’re not flying too late at night. No more time for games.”
“Well,” Leona goes on, “based on this system, my calculations, and your most fuel-efficient cruising speed, you should arrive in about eleven hours.”
“Are we landing on an island?” Marie asks her.
“Well, awaited.passively.landings is in the middle of the water, but that’s probably for the best, and there’s a resort not too far from there, where Heath has two rooms booked for you. In fact, it will be past sunset by the time you get there, so you might just wanna check in, and head for the coordinates in the morning. It’s only a few hours away in boat mode. I believe that the island is where the city of Bristol should be.”
“Did the island sink?” Heath guesses. “Is your Bristol at a particularly high elevation?”
“Not that I can remember,” Angela answers. “The higher elevations were in Scotland. They called them the highlands.”
“Why do we need a resort if we have this?” Ramses asks, indicating the whole of the Olimpia.
“You’re on vacation,” Heath reminds him. “Try not to stand out. Do normal things, like hiking, and museuming. I didn’t make reservations for you, but there’s also a bike tour that goes all around that island, if you’re interested.”
They discuss a few more details, but it really is time for them to leave, so they make their farewells, and break in half. The away team uses the road as a runway, instead of doing a true VTO, to save on fuel, and disappears into the horizon.

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 9, 2398

As planned, the six of them spend the entire day together, though Leona and Angela each have to take a few minutes every once in a while to confer with their employers. The latter is doing well in her new position. She expected at least one person from the office to sense that something was up, but everybody treats her like Marie, which is to say that some of them are nice and respectful, while others are misogynistic and hateful jerks. Leona is doing okay. She’s delivering her work on time, and the people at the top are pleased with it. They’re not asking questions, which is in everyone’s best interests. She’s trying not to be too preoccupied with her secret suspicions of Heath. She has a plan to drop tidbits of information to him to see whether outsiders catch wind of it. Then she’ll know that he can’t be trusted. That’s for later, though. For now, she just wants to think about the travelers. This won’t be the longest she’s ever parted from Mateo, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.
At the end of the day, they retire to their respective rooms, the other four knowing full well that the Matics are about to spend one last night together. “What’s up?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me what’s going on with you. What are you feeling?”
She looks at him, but doesn’t say anything. “Give me your phone.” She takes it from him, and places it in the EMB bag, along with her own. Then she pulls out a bug scanner, and begins to wave it around the room.
Mateo sits on the bed, and waits patiently for her to finish. Once she does, he steps into the bathroom, and begins to fill the tub. He turns the water on high enough to make a lot of noise, but low enough to make it last. They sit on the edge of the tub to talk, and he drops into a whisper. “You can’t speak freely around the others?”
“Not around Heath,” she answers in an even lower whisper, “and by extension, not Marie either.”
“Yeah, I’m sensing a pattern. All the people we’ve met who have been given some information about us either aren’t too surprised by what they learn, or they have a connection to Heath. He’s even the one who first met Alyssa McIver. I mean, you and I both know that she’ll be a friend of ours in the future, but it’s still odd.”
“Yeah,” Leona agrees. “Plus, how did that forger know what I was planning? She was all ready with my new secret agent paraphernalia; it was just too perfect. I don’t know. He’s been so good to Marie, but maybe he’s been playing the long game.”
“I assume you have a plan?” Mateo figures.
“I have...the notion of the plan.”
“A baby plan. That’s what my father, Randall used to call it when we had something big to do, but didn’t really know how we were gonna do it. Sometimes we would plan something to the last minute, and sometimes we just sort of winged it. That worked out for us about half the time, I’d say.”
She smiles. “You don’t talk about your parents anymore.”
“You don’t either.”
She nods. “I guess it’s complicated. I have five parents, you share two of them with me, and then you have two more. Can anyone else relate to our bonkers family tree?”
“Yeah, but not in the same way, sis.”
“Oh, gross!” She’s laughing, though.
Mateo looks behind them at the rising water, which is about to start spilling into the drain. “I know we started this for the white noise, but we might as well take advantage. Wadya say?”
“We can’t do that, though,” she says in a cutesy voice. “You’re my adopted brother.”
He double palms his forehead, and tries to stifle the laughter. “Jesus! Now I see how weird it is, being on the other side of the joke.”
She pulls him into the water with her, clothes and all, like a romcom couple in the second act. “You don’t wanna roleplay?”

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 8, 2398

In general, the afterlife simulation was cut off from base reality. Pryce made this decision with good reason, it wasn’t just to keep control over the residents. As great as the virtual construct was, it wasn’t real by most people’s standards, and having a link back to the people they left behind could be psychologically detrimental. There were eleven status levels that one could earn or lose, though the bottom level was true death, and the top was incredibly rare resurrection. So really there were nine; each level up affording the resident more privileges. Level Seven Pink Elite was the best for the majority of people. The upper levels demanded a level of responsibility that not everyone valued. But within this level were sublevels. Just because you reached it, didn’t mean you had everything. Only a select few were given insight into the events down on Earth, and in later years, outward to the stars. Angela was one of these people, having proven herself worthy of the honor.
Near the beginning of the 21st century, a certain television series premiered, featuring a shady intelligence agency known as SD-6. She described it to the team, but Heath shook his head, not thinking the two had anything to do with each other. No such show existed in the Third Rail. The version of SD6 to which Leona apparently now belonged was probably as secretive, but not as nefarious. It wasn’t really one organization, but six—hence the name. The National Intelligence, Domestic Affairs, National Police, National Military, Court Agent, and Transportation Regulatory Authorities came together for a joint task force that kind of had carte blanche for any mission necessary to protect the country’s interests. For the longest time, the existence of this task force remained only rumor for the general public, but it now features an overt director, which holds press conferences, and the occasional accessible budget or ethics hearing. Still, this is a big deal. Leona is a big deal. More to the point, if her credentials are as good as they seem, this forger’s powers are greater than they thought to consider until now.
“Oh, I got a little six-thing in the corner too,” Mateo says. He hadn’t really looked at his own new badge until this morning.
The others hadn’t checked it either. Marie takes it from him, and inspects it carefully. “Commandant in the National Military Authority. Mateo, this is, like, five ranks higher than you were before.”
He shrugs. “You know me, I excel at everything I do.”
“What does she want from you?” Marie asks, shaking her head in disbelief.
“What does she want from us?” Angela corrects.
“She never asked anything of the two of us when we first got Marie her new identity four years ago,” Heath explains. “What’s so special about you? No offense, because I know you’re special, but how does she know that?”
“Maybe it doesn’t really have anything to do with us,” Mateo suggests. “Maybe she has a gambling problem, and lost all her money the day before we walked in her door. Maybe her brother’s been locked up in a federal prison, and she wants us to get them out. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.”
Leona is grateful that her husband came up with an alternative to her theory that Heath is a mole. “That’s really creative, honey, but we don’t have the luxury of believing in coincidences. I haven’t seen a coincidence since 2028.”
“Trying to figure out what she’s up to isn’t going to do any good unless we can speak with her directly,” Angela believes. “For now, we have to plan tomorrow’s events.”
“Tomorrow’s events?” Marie questions, confused. “We’re not leaving until Wednesday.”
“Yes,” Heath begins, “so we’re going to spend the whole day together, just the six of us. We’ll have a special breakfast, a special lunch, and a special dinner, along with a few other surprises.”
“Don’t worry,” Angela continues, “we’re not gonna parade down the streets. We’ll just secretly see you off. Is that okay?”
“Yeah,” Marie replies with a smile. “That’ll be great.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 7, 2398

Leona opens the door without knocking, a little surprised to find it unlocked, but not showing it. The forger has security cameras around the outside, so she always knows when someone is coming. That’s not what it is this time, though. She’s not here at all. The whole place has been completely cleaned out, and cleaned up. Leona rubs her index finger on the counter. Not a single mote of dust, grease, or anything else has been left behind. It smells of bleach, implying that the one who once called this her office has left, whether it be because she was getting too involved with their team, or for other reasons. Perhaps the authorities are on to her, or she’s paranoid about the possibility. Or maybe this is just something she does every now and then. Either way, it suggests that she’s out of their lives forever, and Mateo won’t have to pretend to be a federal agent, or find a way out of it. Leona is about to leave when something catches her eye.
A gray something or other is peeking out from around the corner on one of the lockers towards the back. More curious than anything, she goes over to check it out. It’s a pantsuit, fit for a woman of her measurements. Developing the sickening feeling that she’s going to regret it, she opens the locker to find six more like it, of various designs. On the little shelf above is a badge and gun. Cardinal Agent Miriam Salinas of the National Intelligence Authority. There’s an oddly intimidating logo in the corner that looks like a numeral six, with a line against the right side, and a curve flowing the opposite direction on the bottom.
Leona stares at her picture on the left side of the ID. She glances to the sidearm occasionally, and also the wardrobe. This is what she wanted. She wanted to keep Mateo out of it, and take on the burden. The problem is, how did the forger know that? As she’s staring, she thinks about all the people they have been in contact with since they came to this reality. She hasn’t found herself with the ability to trust even one of them. Even Heath is suspect. He just happened to catch wind of Marie’s supernatural arrival, and chose to keep it secret, and now they’re married? She hasn’t said anything, because they seem happy, but who is this guy, and why is he so cool about all this? If anyone’s a mole, it has to be him, because no one knew that Leona was planning to take Mateo’s place except for him, and the team. Ramses hasn’t stopped checking the condo for bugs since he first freaked out about the possibility.
This is okay. It’s going to be okay. While three of them are off on their special mission, Leona can keep an eye on this Heath Walton fellow, and decide whether he could have some kind of ulterior motive. She sticks the badge in her pocket, hooks the holster to her belt, conceals it with a blazer, and gathers the rest of the suits. In her first timeline, she would play secret agent with a neighbor kid. This experience is evidently about to become useful.
What she didn’t know as she was having that last thought is just how right she was. As she’s walking back to Heath’s car, another car pulls up. She catches the glint of red and blue in the grill, which tells her that it’s an unmarked law enforcement vehicle of some kind. She has enough time to pop the trunk, and toss the wad of clothes in, but if she tries to do the same for the gun, they’ll just see it. It’s much better if she leaves it hidden, and hopes that they don’t find a reason to search her person. A woman gets out of the driver’s side, and a man gets out of the passenger seat. They’re both wearing suits, and approaching like cops who aren’t presently afraid of their situation.
“Agent Collar. This is my local police liaison, Detective Horton. Mind telling me what division you’re with?”
Now, Leona knows what division she’s with. Her badge says so. The problem is, she doesn’t know how a real agent would say that, or really what she would say in this situation, full stop. Would a real agent say the whole thing, or would she just say NIA? Would she throw around a proverbial ruler, or be all nice about it? Maybe she ought to just let the badge itself do the talking. She pulls it out, which reveals the gun on her belt, which is probably not secured according to regulations.
The agent’s eyes widen in—is that horror, or deference? “Oh, SD6. Sorry, sir. I had no idea. We got a tip about this spot. What would you like us to do?” Deference.
Recalling the mumbo jumbo she’s heard on TV, and hoping this reality uses the same nomenclature, Leona nods once. “Get forensics down here. It’s been scrubbed, but maybe there’s something here that they missed.”
“Right away, sir.” She clears her throat suggestively to her liaison.
He’s a little slow, but gets the idea, and goes back to the car to radio the station.
“Any leads?” Agent Collar asks.
When Leona first put on this blazer, she noticed something rather light tap against her chest. She kind of ignored it, because it didn’t seem too important. Now she realizes that it’s just a pair of sunglasses in the inside pocket. Still thinking about how someone in her position might act given the circumstances—as seen through the lens of a highly stylized and melodramatic police procedural—she suavely places them on her face, and jerks her lapels down in a commanding sort of way. “I’ll run them down myself. Just secure the scene. I’ll call you if I need backup.”
Agent Collar nods respectfully, and lets Leona get in her car, but then realizes something. “Oh, wait. Let me give you my card.”
“I can find your number if I want it,” Leona tells her coolly just before slamming the door shut. She drives off under the speed limit. Shit, did that just work?

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 6, 2398

Ramses is standing, but hunched over, hands in a steeple over his mouth. He’s looking at the floor as the rest of the team looks at him from the audience, and waits patiently. No one has anything else to do for the rest of the evening, so they might as well just give him the time he needs. Finally, he drops his arms, and picks the book up from his chair. “This book could hold the key to everything we ever needed to know about this world, and the next. I’ve read it twice already, and there is no denying that it was written by a time traveler, or perhaps a human compatriot. The attention to detail is unmatched even by The Superintendent’s words. At first, I thought maybe this was all a coincidence, and I didn’t know exactly what I was reading. I didn’t recognize any of the names of the characters, but upon my second time, I realized they were surely changed to protect the real individuals. There’s a family of powerful people who are obviously the Prestons. There are two people who call themselves gargoyles. There are even those I recognize as leaders of the Freemarketeer movement that I was a part of. That’s the focus of the story. The travelers are really just secondary to a historical account of 22nd and 23rd century Sol.” He stops to gauge their reactions. “Nothing?”
“Wait, are you done?” Mateo asks.
“No, I just thought...isn’t this exciting?” 
“Yeah, of course,” Mateo agrees. “We just didn’t want to interrupt. Who’s the author?”
“It’s a man by the name of Ildemire Lorenz. I did a little digging, and I believe that he’s still alive, and doing so in an Austrian city called Innsbruck.”
Leona taps the query into her tablet, sets the device on Ramses’ chair, and throws a hologram into the space between them and Ramses. “It’s not too terribly far from Croatia. We were planning on going to Austria anyway before sneaking over a couple borders.”
“Well...we were,” Mateo corrects. Everybody already knows by now that Mateo, Ramses, and Marie will be doing this one alone.
“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” Heath jumps in. “You’re just going to add a new destination to the itinerary. It’s not even on the list.”
“We had no reason to believe that anywhere in Austria belonged on the list before,” Mateo explains. “Now we do. It’s probably our best lead since The Constant imploded.”
“This is what you’re gonna do?” Heath asks his wife. “You’re gonna go on a mission just before your procedure?”
“It’s just talking to someone,” Marie defends.
“That doesn’t mean it won’t be dangerous,” Angela says. “I don’t like that the three of you are doing this alone. I don’t like that our bruiser isn’t going with you.”
“I don’t either,” Leona concedes, “but I have work to do, and even though I don’t always have to be in the office, it’s best that I stay close; as I’m able, anyway.”
“The fact of the matter is that it’s Marie’s decision,” Mateo reminds them. “Ram and I will go wherever, whenever, and do whatever. If you just want to go straight to the doctor, that’s all right.”
“We need a good reason to be in Europe,” Marie decides after a certain amount of time. “A short tour is a good idea. We could visit Germany, Czechia, and hell, maybe even where London ought to be. The longer we stay in places other than Croatia, the more time we’ll have to slip away unnoticed, and take care of business.”
“If that’s what you wanna do, then I support you,” Heath says. “I can’t go with you anymore, but I can use my excellent travel agent skills, and plan it for you. Would this be acceptable?”
“I would love that,” Marie tells him graciously. “He’s really good at it. He told me about how he planned a family reunion at age thirteen.”
“I can’t remember why they asked me to do it,” Heath adds. “I guess they just saw my potential. Or they just didn’t want to deal with it themselves.”
“There’s another order of business,” Leona begins, “if we’re quite finished with the Innsbruck one for now.”
“There’ve been so many,” Angela says with a laugh.
Leona reaches over to select a recording on her phone. The forger’s voice comes through, “how would you handle someone like me? Would you teleport into my house at night, and slit my throat?” Mateo was secretly live-streaming the maddening conversation. It was his idea.
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?” Mateo’s voice returns.
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.
Mateo releases a frustrated sigh. “Looks like you got me by the balls.
I wish.
Leona pauses playback. “All right, that’s enough. You get the point.”
“That sounded like the forger,” Ramses figures.
“It was,” Mateo confirms. “I’m a little suit piggy now. She’s going to make me go on missions, or whatever. I don’t know what she has planned.”
“What does that mean for us?” Marie questions.
“It means that my husband is leaving the country without telling this woman anything about it, and if she needs someone to complete one of her missions, then I’ll do it in his stead.”
“How exactly do you think that’s gonna work?” Heath questions.
“Oh, I’ll make it work. That’s what The Olimpia is for. You don’t have to tell no one where you’re going. I’m sure she’ll make the appropriate arrangements when she realizes I’m a better choice. I’m going to pay her a visit tomorrow. You three just need to focus on getting packed and ready to leave. We’ll handle the war at home.”

Monday, August 8, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: June 5, 2398

For the last five weeks, Mateo has had a standing appointment at Magnus Sharpe’s office to discuss his psycho-emotional issues in a presumably safe and consequence-free environment. He hasn’t been able to make it to every Friday, but he’s always made it up. Today, he doesn’t feel like going in, but he didn’t come to this decision in time to cancel appropriately, so Ramses has asked to take his place. He could do with some therapy himself after the recent abduction, and Mag. Sharpe has apparently proven herself to be reliable, and to provide a safe space for time travelers, so he figured he would give it a try. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, because he didn’t grow up in a world where this sort of thing was available.
“What do you mean?” Magus Sharpe asks. “Had the science of psychology not yet been developed in your time?”
“Oh no, it definitely had. From my team’s perspective,” Ramses begins, “I’m from the future, not the past. And that’s why this is weird. You see, in my time, and in my culture, trust was a real issue. Artificial intelligence dominated our lives, and it was just about impossible to get away from. It made decisions for us, and gave us everything we needed. If you wanted to avoid it completely, you were shit out of luck. Oops, sorry.”
“It’s quite all right,” Mag. Sharpe promises.
Ramses nods, and pets her dog some more. “My family taught me to be a capitalist...to essentially fetishize a world of haves and have-nots. I’m not sure if that’s an idiom that exists in your world.”
“I can grasp the meaning. Go on.”
“Of course, the capitalist movement was composed of rich and privileged people, because if anyone who believed in it started to lose their status, they would...well, they would jump ship, and go back to normal society. That’s why it didn’t work, but obviously the diehard fans could never accept that. They just kept fighting and fighting for it, and it eventually died out, because capitalism survived for thousands of years on a planet founded upon capitalism. It only lasted because everyone agreed to it. Once the majority of inhabitants agreed to reject it, it became unrealistic and unsustainable. I’m kind of overexplaining things, because the reason I’m telling you all this is because therapy was sort of the one thing that never went back to the capitalistic format. It just didn’t work. Humans stopped studying medicine almost altogether, so if you needed mental health help, you got it from an AI, whether you were normal, or like me and my family. So yes, we had psychological tools, but we did not have human support, so I don’t know how to do this, which is why I’m rambling on about unimportant nonsense.”
“I don’t think it’s unimportant nonsense,” Mag. Sharpe says. “It’s clearly important to you, or you wouldn’t have said anything.”
“Well...”
“You would have just told me you had never tried therapy, and moved on, but you went over the basics of your society, because you want me to understand where it is you come from. It seems as though that’s what you’re struggling with. I’m not supposed to do this, but from what I gather, the way you grew up was wildly different than your friends. Do you have trouble relating to them because of that?”
“I don’t know about that, I love them.”
“Sure you do, and they love you too, but how do you feel about the changes you experienced over time? To them, the future was an idealistic paradise; full of adventure, yes, but noble in its pursuit of equality. You, on the other hand, were born into such a world, but were denied its advantages by a subculture that spurned its teachings, and romanticized an economic format that prized winners over losers.”
“Yeah, well, you seem to get it.”
“I’m just going by what you told me. I can only imagine that your parents taught you that inequality formed the basis of a healthy and competitive world that valued innovation, which they likely believed was impossible to achieve without the possibility of true failure and loss.”
“You act as if you’ve been there before.”
“No, it’s just that the world you describe, I’ve heard of it before.”
“Where, one of the others on my team?”
“No.” She stands and steps over to her bookcase to scan the titles until she finds what she’s looking for. “Here.” She hands it to him.
Capital With a Capital C,” he reads aloud.
“It’s eerily similar to what you describe. You should read it,” she urges.
He speedreads the description on the back, choosing to read one excerpt out loud as well, “...but in this world are multiple subcultures who idealize the inequality of yesteryear. As they attempt to plunge the world into the darkness of the past—some in truly violent ways—another group desperately tries to make that past better than it once was. This is fiction?”
“You tell me?”
Ramses flips the book back over, half-expecting to find the author calling himself The Superintendent, or some self-aggrandizing bullshit like that. It’s not. “Who the hell is Ildemire Lorenz?”

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.”