Saturday, November 26, 2022


Meredarchos’ plan presumably hinges on this idea that the team is not meant to know that he has transferred to Trina’s body. While the authorities were looking for Andile, he would apparently be free to move about the world unnoticed. Except that he would be noticed, because we’re talking about an unaccompanied six-year-old girl. His plan just doesn’t make any sense, especially considering the fact that Ramses knew about the secret refrigerated room, and would discover it eventually, if not immediately, which he did. Of course, little Trina was not capable of carrying Andile out of the building, so he couldn’t take the body with him after the transfer, but then why didn’t he just take Trina’s body, and make the transfer somewhere else. This is all sloppy work, and Ramses believes that he has an answer for why.
“Erlendr is in there.”
“They’re sharing a body,” Leona understands. “That’s always been a theory, but it doesn’t explain why they would use Trina’s instead of Andile’s, and risk us finding out.”
“I think it does explain it. They’re both alpha males, trying to control the outcome of whatever it is they’re doing together. They have their own objectives, and their own ways of accomplishing them. It’s sloppy because they can’t agree on anything, and neither of them will concede to the other, which means that nothing gets done right.”
“The problem with this possibility,” Mateo begins, “is that we have a short window to take advantage of their disarray. Eventually, one of two things will happen: either they’ll learn to work together—though this is less likely—or one will win out over the other. It depends on who is the stronger psychic, I would guess.”
“There’s at least one other option,” Leona says. “They may be able to split their minds to a second body.”
“Whose?” Mateo asks. “The only other vacant body we know of is Leona Reaver, who is being protected by layers and layers of agency security.”
“Who says it has to be vacant?” Ramses poses.
Mateo shakes his head. “If they can share the body of someone who doesn’t want to share it, why take Trina at all? Why not go straight to the guy who owns the pizza place down the block, or any other random stranger?”
“Erlendr may not be able to resist the poetry,” Rames suggests. “The pizza guy means nothing to us, but he doesn’t think we can hurt Trina. Again, sloppy.”
“Well, that’s another problem,” Leona says before a pause. “Can we? Can we hurt Trina’s body? Can we hurt any child?” That is the classic question issued in philosophy classes the world over. Would you be able to kill Hitler as a child, knowing what he would turn out to be? Except they don’t know what Meredarchos is, or will be, and Erlendr has already done his worst.
They’re silent for a moment before Mateo speaks again. “We still have the Livewire, right?”
“Yeah,” Ramses answers. “Meredarchos apparently doesn’t need it to control the Insulator of Life, so he didn’t steal it too.”
Mateo looks at his wife. “I would hate to kill someone who looks like you, but...”
“But it would be easier than someone who looks like little Trina, and honestly, we would probably ask Arcadia to actually do it for us.”
“If you place someone in Leona Reaver’s body, they’re not going to die,” Ramses reminds them. “They’ll fall back to her original timeline, and then be dropped right back here in that parking lot.”
Leona nods. “I’ve been thinking about that. I need you to do something for me.”
“Okay. What might that be?” Ramses is worried now.
“I need you to build me a prefrontal cortical scanner, unless they exist in this reality already, in which case, you would just need to procure one.”
“Lee-lee, what is that?” Mateo asks.
“Leona Reaver and Alt!Mateo keep subverting death because an extraction mirror keeps saving them. They thought that they couldn’t get out of the loop, but I believe that they’re not trying hard enough. It’s true that it is difficult to let yourself die when you see a way out, even when you’re suffering from suicidal thoughts. That’s why people who genuinely want to die can’t just strangle themselves with their bare hands. These decisions are made in the frontal lobe, and with enough science, you can manipulate which decisions an individual makes.”
“Are you talking about inventing a suicide inducer?” Mateo questions.
“They already exist in the main sequence, and probably the other advanced realities,” Leona reasons. “Or rather, they could. Whether anyone has ever actually used such technology is irrelevant. It’s possible regardless. I’m not talking about using it on all my enemies, but I think it might be worth the risk.”
Ramses is torn between the two of them. “I’ll investigate the possibilities, but I make no guarantees.”
Leona tilts her head as she’s standing up to leave. Sometimes she wishes this were a dictatorship. Sometimes.
“I know my wife,” Mateo says after she’s left. “You may also know her well enough to know what she’s really planning.”
“I do. She’s not interested in making Meredarchos and Erlendr suicidal. She’s going to copy her own brain, and upload all three consciousnesses into her alternate self’s head. She’ll kill herself, and the other two will just be along for the ride.”
“How do we suppose we stop her from doing that?”
“Not how you’re thinking,” Ramses warns. “Don’t forget, I know you too.”
“It’s the only play that makes sense.”
“Sacrificing yourself to prevent her from doing it isn’t a fair trade.”
“It won’t really be me. It’ll be a different me. But it won’t even be that, right? It’ll be a lesser me. No memories, no real thoughts...just the impulse to get out of the extraction mirror loop, and end it once and for all.”
“You can get semantic on me all you want, Mateo. This is a murder-suicide pact. Whatever happens, you both need to appreciate that truth.”
Mateo stands up as well. “It won’t be the first time, and I doubt it will be the last. And hey, won’t they end up in the afterlife simulation anyway?”
Ramses shakes his head. “I don’t think so. It’s an old timeline. We don’t believe it existed back then.” He watches Mateo leave the lab too. Then he unlocks his Completed equipment locker, and takes out his neural scanner. It’s funny that the two of them are under the impression that she’s the one who came up with the idea to copy consciousness. He was working on this for weeks, and now he knows how he’s going to use it. He’ll scan his own brain, and end this once and for all.

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 22, 2398

The agents are on the case. Cheyenne’s murder was a terrible tragedy, but in the end, it hasn’t changed anything. They still need to find Meredarchos, who is hiding out in Andile’s former body, and they still don’t know where he’s going. His motives are difficult to understand, to say the least. Why sneak into the Lofts, and how did he do it? Why kill her? For the Insulator of Life? If he’s as powerful as he sounds, death is probably not something he’s really ever had to worry about.
Angela calls Leona, Mateo, and Ramses into the security room. She’s been studying the footage, and might not have slept last night. At first, she was focused on making sure that Ramses didn’t do anything, or his body, anyway. After she cleared his name, though, she apparently wanted to go back through, and look more closely at the feeds. “How did he get in the building?” she poses.
“We don’t know. How?” Leona asks right back.
“I’ve seen every frame from every camera,” Angela begins, “and he doesn’t. He doesn’t step one foot in this place.”
“Okay... Do you need to sleep?”
“I’m fine, I’ve had some coffee,” Angela says. Coffee indeed, the trashcan is full of coffee pods. She takes another sip from her current cup of the stuff. “The reason I didn’t see him enter the building is because he was already inside.” She switches the monitors to the feeds from the fifteenth of this month, which is the day Rothko broke out of the blacksite, and—probably unintentionally—freed Meredarchos. It is here where they see him pick the lock on the side door, and enter the building. “I looked into the operation records from SD6. He came straight here. He knew exactly where we lived and worked, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
“What did he want to do?” Mateo asks.
Angela begins to step through the timeline. They see Meredarchos walk right up to the lab, let himself in using a badge that shouldn’t exist, and which he definitely shouldn’t have, then approach the Insulator of Life. He touches the top of it, and disappears in a flash of life.”
“Where did he go?” Alyssa asks. She wasn’t in the room before.
“That I don’t know,” Angela answers, all jittery. She tries to take another desperate sip, but Mateo takes it away from her.
“Okay, that’s enough.”
“Whatever, you can’t control me, I’ll just wait until you leave. Now, that’s not the interesting part. Here’s the interesting part.” She jumps back to the feed from two days ago, dragging one particular camera over to the main screen, so they can see it better that’s showing the outside of that side door. “Okay, so watch her—I mean him—leave.” Meredarchos does indeed leave the building, and walk out of frame. “Right quick, look at the distant viewer...there. Did you see that? His arm—well, I mean, Andile’s arm—appears in frame for a second, and then he goes back out. So it looks like he’s leaving, right? Wrong. He comes back. Now, we don’t see him coming back, but I know that he did. Because look at this camera.” She switches to the loading dock camera, where nothing happens. “Uhuh. See it right? Right?”
“See what?” Mateo questions. “Nothing happened.”
“Run it again,” Leona asks, leaning forward, and squinting at the screen.
Angela nods. “Okay.” She does so. “There! Aaaaaand there! And there, and there, and there.”
“Yeah, I see it,” Leona acknowledges.
“I see it too,” Ramses says. Of course the three smartest people in the room see what the other two don’t.
“What is it?” Alyssa asks them.
“There’s a leaf on the pavement. The wind picks up, and pushes it maybe a centimeter to the left. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s there. And it keeps repeating. This footage is on a loop. In fact, it loops the same five seconds over and over again for twenty-five minutes. That’s enough time to step out of the blindspot, and into the dock through the regular door.”
“I thought that’s why you guys put those lava lamps all over the place,” Alyssa points out. “Don’t they prevent loops from happening?”
“There are none outside. It’s not a mistake,” Leona tells her. “We made a conscious decision to not put them on the exterior.” Having lamps on the outside would draw too much attention. It seemed safer to assume that anyone wishing them harm from the outside, would try to make their way inside, where cameras would be waiting. That seemed good enough...unless they had explosives. “They would look suspicious. People would be asking why the hell they’re out there.”
“So, what does this mean?” Mateo poses. “Meredarchos snuck in here to kill Cheyenne for the thing he already had in his possession a week ago?”
“It’s all about Erlendr,” Leona realizes. “He knew that he wouldn’t be able to keep Ramses’ body forever, because we would figure it out, and we would spend untold resources to get him back if he escaped with it again, so he came up with a plan to get himself into Andile’s body, which is extra, and thusly less important. Because apparently Meredarchos has the ability to store full substrates in the Insulator, which we were to understand is not something it’s capable of.”
“So both Meredarchos and Erlendr are in Andile’s body?” Alyssa guesses.
“Either that, or Meredarchos just took the Insulator with plans to use it on some other poor unsuspecting soul later,” Leona suggests.
“That doesn’t explain why he came back into the building,” Angela reminds her. “What did he need in the basement? We swept the whole place, nothing was taken.”
“You didn’t sweep everything,” Ramses reveals solemnly.
“What are you talking about?” Leona asks.
“Okay, don’t get mad, but I found something in the basement when we first got here that I decided to keep secret in case I needed to store hazardous materials. I don’t have all my memories of when Erlendr was in my head, but I get fragments back. I think he put something in there.”
“Something, like what?”
“Something like...Trina’s body?”
“Oh my God,” Alyssa exclaims.
They all take a field trip to the basement to see whether what Ramses believes is true. He remembers digging in the dirt, and coming down here with something approximately human-sized, so he just put two and two together. Now he needs proof. He removes the false panel, and opens the secret refrigerator door, but they don’t find Trina’s body in there. Instead, they see Andile’s.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 21, 2398

Bridgette is about to leave her room when realizes that she put her skirt on backwards. “Chey!” No response. She spins it around, glad she didn’t leave the apartment looking like that. Cheyenne would find it funny. “Chey!” Still no response. “Cheyenne, have you seen my bracelet! I don’t remember when I last wore it, but it’s not on my nightstand!” Why isn’t she responding? She needs to sleep a lot, even with the Insulator of Life, there’s no way she beat her out of bed this morning. She opens her door, and reaches over to knock on Cheyenne’s. “Are you there?” What is up with this? She takes the liberty of opening Cheyenne’s door. At first, it’s like she doesn’t see what she’s seeing. That’s not her, hanging there. It’s a big decoration for some kind of holiday that she’s not that familiar with. It’s’s an illusion. There’s nothing there at all. This is some kind of trick. That Alyssa girl can make you see things, right. But why would she do that? Why would she make her see her best friend hanging from the rafter? That’s sick. This is sick. It’s a sick joke. “Help!” She flips the upturned chair upright, and jumps onto it, holding Cheyenne by the waist as high as she can. “HELP!” she screams again.
The door is locked!” someone on the other side of it muffles back.
“Break it down!”
Mateo suddenly appears in the common area of the apartment.
“Get a knife!” Bridgette orders.
Mateo grabs a kitchen knife from the block. He runs into the room, squeezes himself onto the chair with her, and slices through the bedsheet. He tosses the knife to the corner just in time to catch them both before they fall to the floor.
Bridgette scrambles to remove the sheet from Cheyenne’s neck. She doesn’t check for a pulse, or a breath. She goes right into chest compressions and rescue breaths. By now, Leona and others have rushed into the apartment, having retrieved the master key.
Leona kneels down and takes Cheyenne’s wrist for some reason. “She’s gone.”
“She’s cold,” Leona explains solemnly.
“So? It’s a little cold today. It’s the first day of fall, isn’t it?” Bridgette keeps going.
“Bridgette, stop.”
Bridgette stops. Her hands come off of her friend’s dead body, and land on her own knees as she leans back. “She’s so cold,” she agrees, tearing up. “She did this last night. Either I was here, or I came in, and didn’t check on her like I usually do. Why didn’t I check on her? If I had just...”
“Where is the Insulator of Life?” Mateo asks, looking around the room.
“Is that all you people care about?”
Leona takes both Bridgette’s hands in hers. “If it’s not here, where would it have gone? Would she have put it somewhere else?”
Bridgette wipes the saltwater from her eyes, and looks around too. “No. You were done with it, so she would have brought it back here, where it belongs.”
“She did,” Kivi says. “We were chatting, so I followed her in. I saw her set it on her desk.”
“And she wasn’t suicidal, right?” Leona asks.
“No, of course not.”
Leona looks up at Ramses, who sighs, and shuts his eyes in sadness and fear. “The boo-boo cage is on, right?”
“Yes,” Leona answers.
Ramses takes a little remote out of his pocket, and presses a button, dropping the remote in time for it to not teleport with him.
“Angela, check the security feeds. I want to know everything that happened in this building since I let who we thought was Ramses out of that cage.”
“You have a client meeting today,” Alyssa points out.
“You take it,” Angela requests.
“I’m not qualified or experienced, I’m just the receptionist.”
“You helped me edit the discussion notes. You know the material. I trust you. I need to watch the feeds. My mind can absorb the footage better than normal people.”
“Shouldn’t Kivi do it instead?” Alyssa suggests.
“Kivi needs to find someone for me,” Leona says, standing up.
“Who?” Bridgette questions.
“Erlendr Preston,” Leona answers with a burning hatred. “We may be able to rewrite history.”
Mateo wraps Cheyenne’s body in her blanket, and carries her out of the apartment. Bridgette doesn’t know where he’s taking her, or what they’re going to do with it. They’re not really a part of society anymore. Would they even be able to call the authorities on this matter? No, they have to handle it in-house. When they find out who did this, be it Ramses, Erlendr in Ramses’ body, or a random burglar, Bridgette is gonna deal with it herself. She’ll hurt anyone who tries to get in her way. They’re going to answer for their crimes, and she’s the only one who gets to determine what that means.
Leona doesn’t feel like it’s good for Bridgette’s mental health to be at The Lofts right now, so Marie escorts her to the condo. Heath has been sleeping in his old master bedroom, and Arcadia and Vearden sleep together, so that leaves the smaller room free for Bridgette’s use. She woke up well-rested this morning, but she’s feeling so tired. She can’t even keep her eyes open. She passes out on the bed.
She doesn’t wake up until night has fallen. The other four, including Marie, are sitting in the living room. “I’m hungry.”
“We’re warming a dish for you,” Vearden says, standing up, and heading for the kitchen area to retrieve it.
“What is it you people like to say,” Bridgette begins, “report?”
“Please, sit,” Marie recommends. “Angela finished with the security footage. The whereabouts of Ramses’ body has been accounted for all day yesterday, and all this morning. He fell asleep in his lab, having missed out on a lot of work, so a camera was always on him.” She hesitates to continue.
“Say it.”
“Andile Mhlangu was seen leaving your apartment, going down the stairs, and exiting through the side door.”
“I can’t remember who was in her body,” Bridgette admits.
Marie nods. “It was the man we’ve been looking for, Meredarchos.”
Bridgette nods. “That’s good,” she decides.
“Why would that be good?” Heath asks, afraid of the answer.
“Andile doesn’t need her body anymore, unlike Ramses. That means I can kill it.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 20, 2398

Leona is back from Orlando. She was supposed to return last night, but there was just too much to do. She’s here now, though, and she’s ready to move on to the next issue. They have to somehow get Erlendr’s consciousness out of Ramses’ brain without also removing Ramses’ consciousness, and they have to somehow know that they have been successful. Erlendr is not the best actor in the universe, but he’s been convincing enough before, and he doesn’t have to be the one in charge of the body to be in it. He could go dormant, let Ramses take over for a day or two, and then bubble back up to the surface. What they need is a way to confirm that there is a consciousness inside of the Insulator of Life, that it’s the person they’re expecting it to be, and that no one else is in there with him. Unfortunately, the reality’s foremost expert on the temporal object is Ramses himself, and he’s not a reliable source right now.
Cheyenne doesn’t know very much about it, but she’s agreed to help in any way she can by looking over Ramses’ notes on the Insulator in the lab, just in case something catches her eye. “I can’t find page three from the sixth.”
“The sixth of what?” These notes aren’t exactly organized. This is unlike Ramses. Erlendr must have scrambled them on purpose.
Leona hunts for the page elsewhere on the table.
“It looks important,” Cheyenne says. The page before references a breakthrough
Arcadia comes into the lab with a big dumb smile on her face. “Hey, there!”
“I thought you were wiping your hands of all this,” Leona points out.
“I had to make something for you first.” Arcadia slaps a tablet on the table.
Leona picks it up. “What is this?”
“A personality test,” Arcadia explains.
“I see that. Do you prefer round or squircular watches? Does cilantro taste like soap? What is this for?”
“It’s the only way to test for a psychic invader,” she claims.
“How exactly?” Leona presses. She swipes down to the second page. “By asking them to describe the perfect April 25th of 2001?”
“It’s not the questions themselves that matter, it’s how the responder answers them. You know Ramses. You know how he talks, how he behaves. Ask these questions, and pay attention to his micromovements.”
Cheyenne looks at the tablet over Leona’s shoulder. “So if he were a stranger this would be useless?”
“Yeah, that’s why it’s so important to have friends and loved ones,” Arcadia lectures as if she hasn’t spent thousands of years not believing it.
Leona sighs and swipes through more of the questions. “Do you ever smell fudge where there is no fudge? You stole that from Warehouse 13.”
“Well,” Arcadia scoffs jokingly, “if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.”
“Can you help with the Insulator at all?” Leona asks as she puts the tablet down.
“I’m honestly not that familiar with it,” Arcadia admits. “I can tell you that it’s psychic, so you’re going to need a strong mind to control it.”
Leona widens her eyes, and sticks her turtle head out towards her.
Arcadia mimics the gesture. “Yeah, what?”
“You’re the psychic here, dummy,” Leona reminds her in a tone.
Arcadia shakes her head profusely. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You’re not tricking me into being responsible for helping Mister Abdulrashid. More to the point, I won’t let myself be the one to fail at it.”
“We need someone strong of mind. There is none better than a Preston.”
“You’re thinking of my sister. I’m an asshole, remember?”
“I remember,” Leona agrees. “Look, you’re the closest thing we have to a telepath, Third Rail power suppression system notwithstanding. If you can’t do it, no one can. I need you, Arcadia. I need you to go up against your last time.”
“What makes you think I would do that?”
Cheyenne takes a half step forward. “You’re the one who put him in there in the first place.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Arcadia questions.
“I can’t tell you how I know this, but the reason he’s in this reality is because you trapped him in that thing for billions of years.”
“I haven’t done that yet,” Arcadia explains.
“I know,” Cheyenne tells her. “But you will. You do it in your future, which means you can do it now.”
Arcadia frowns, and looks back over at Leona. Her face gives in even more. “Okay, bring him up here. I’ll try to transfer his consciousness out, but you have to run the Turing test, and you can’t blame me if it doesn’t work.”
“That sounds fair,” Leona says. She holds her hand out.
“What, you want a cookie, or something?”
Leona just shakes it once.
Arcadia reaches out and shakes it too.
Mateo escorts Erlendr upstairs, keeping him in chains the whole time. They place him in the boo-boo cage that Ramses built for anyone trying to teleport in or out of the area. Leona connects the Livewire to the Insulator of Life, then hands the other end to Arcadia, so she can work her magic on it. The latter takes deep breaths to center herself. She doesn’t have much psychic power here, so she concentrates what she does have, and focuses on a singular objective. When she’s ready, she plugs the wire in, and commands Erlendr’s mind to come out of the body he stole, and into the Insulator. Leona then sticks the Insulator away in a miniature Faraday cage, and the Livewire in a separate cage. Mateo takes the wire away, and Cheyenne takes the Insulator. Leona proceeds to test Ramses on his behavior. After running through the questions twice, she’s as satisfied with the results as she’ll ever be. It will never not be a risk.
That night, Cheyenne takes the Insulator back upstairs to her apartment, happy to once more have it in her official possession. She was all right lending it out to these people, but she really needs it so she can get back to the future. She sits down to craft a thank you and goodbye letter to them that she plans to have delivered after she leaves to restart her life. Halfway through, the Insulator begins to glow. It doesn’t normally do that; not unless it’s being used to store a consciousness...or free one. The glow expands into a light, which sharpens into the shape of a human. When the light fades, Andile Mhlangu is standing before her, except it’s not Andile; it’s Meredarchos. This is where he escaped to. Before she can scream for help, he rips the topsheet from her bed, and wraps it around her neck. He squeezes tightly until the lights go out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 19, 2398

Meredarchos fell off the map. He never tried to sneak into The Lofts. He never showed up anywhere near the Fountain of Youth. If they were right about his motives in any sense, he probably connected with the past version of Erlendr, who they still haven’t found. They’re not even destined to find him. Erlendr left the universe, and so did Mateo, Leona, and Alyssa. When they came back, they may have come back to a different timeline. Nothing they think they know about the future can be trusted. They could be stuck with two Erlendrs forever. One of them must theoretically cross over to the main sequence to jump start the series of events that leads the team here in the first place, but they’re not even sure of that. This is all new territory, and they’re lost in it.
Leona and her SD6 team are preparing to leave the Orlando area tonight, but not before a permanent installation is established. A group of researchers and operatives will be monitoring the Fountain in case Meredarchos does ever show up, but will also be protecting and studying the Youth water bubbling up from the spring. That’s what they plan to do anyway. Anyone who steps foot into the water becomes immediately stricken with a strong sense of urgency to head for the center, where they will most likely be transported to Birket. So far, by a system of pulleys and ropes, it has not yet come to that, but it is always a risk. The team gave the government all the details about the phenomenon, and they’ve now wiped their hands of all responsibility.
Nothing is really happening today back at the team’s building. Leona is the only one capable of safely operating the Insulator of Life, plus the Livewire. Arcadia has agreed to help fix Ramses, but then she really does just want to get back to her normal life with Vearden and Heath. Angela’s work is presently on autopilot, so she’s bored, and upstairs in the lab, where she comes across the box of Rothko’s magical flashlights that were recovered from the grounds of the blacksite. There are eleven of them in total, of all different shapes and sizes. The largest is the size of her head, and the smallest can fit on a keychain. She lays them all out, arranging them according to color, because again, she’s bored. She wants to switch them on, but she knows that the others would not be happy. She finds herself focusing more on the penlight than the rest. Is it less powerful? Will it run out of energy sooner, if any of them run out at all? What can it do? What can she do with it? Ah, it doesn’t matter. She’s just curious about a unique thing.
“What are you doing?” Marie has secret agented her way into the room unheard.
Without even realizing that she’s doing it, Angela slips the penlight into the back pocket of her pants after she turns to face her alternate self. “I’m just making sure that everything is okay in this room. Why, what are you doing?”
“I was looking for you,” Marie explains.
“Well, I’m here.” Is this the first time she’s hidden something from someone in the centuries that she’s been alive? Well, not always alive, but whatever.
“My old boss called. He wants to speak with me about an incident that happened about four months ago? I did the math, that was when you were impersonating me, so I don’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t say who you had the problem with, because he assumed I would recall. Tell me what happened,” she asks gently.
“I don’t understand how you stood it for all those years. This world is more backwards than ours. I’ll tell you, but only if you promise not to get mad.”

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 18, 2398

It was Vearden who figured it out. Rather, he made a guess, and the team has taken a gamble on it. He realized that when Arcadia explained to them that they should assume Erlendr knows everything that Ramses knows, she missed one detail. They must also assume that he recognizes that Arcadia is smart enough to know that, and would tell the team. The theory is that Erlendr convinced Meredarchos to start a trail from Kansas City to Nashville, then double back. They should have been suspicious the whole time. He was nowhere to be found after the escape until he suddenly popped up on a convenience store security feed in St. Louis. The next day he made a second appearance, all the way in Tennessee. He wasn’t heading for Orlando. He was drawing them away from his real target, which is the man who helped break him out of the blacksite.
Arcadia wasn’t lying, she just failed to see the entire plan. Meredarchos is a psychic from another universe. Temporal energy has nothing to do with that. Telepathic powers have always been a separate thing from time manipulation. They just so happen to be present in the same world. Those who possess both do so via coincidence more than anything. He has no use for immortality water of any kind. Being transported to Birket would have been a great way to escape North America, but then he would be trapped in Birket, and even with the ability to push thoughts into people’s minds, it would have been too much work to escape. He would have been better off going in any random direction, and trying to blend in with the civilians there while he learned how to take back control of his powers. Erlendr knew that his cover was not going to last forever. As intelligent as he is, he’s not a particularly good actor. He can mimic the behavior of those he knows best, and that really only includes his so-called family. He may have access to Ramses’ memories, but he doesn’t understand his personality.
He needed a way out, and Meredarchos is that way. It’s the only thing that really makes sense when trying to explain why he made any attempt to break Meredarchos or Rothko free. No matter what he says, Erlendr doesn’t do anything unless it’s for Erlendr. He cares about no one, and he doesn’t help people out of the kindness of his heart. He’s a predator, and a user. The Fountain of Youth couldn’t be anything but a red herring. Even so, they can’t risk it being the answer, so the team is splitting off. Believing more firmly that Meredarchos would be coming to help Erlendr, Arcadia stays behind with Mateo, along with most of the restidents of The Lofts. Leona and Vearden, meanwhile, will take the SD6 operatives to Florida, and wait for him there. If he does show up, Mateo will teleport Arcadia to their location. Her own psychic prowess is still their best weapon they have against his psychic invasions. They’re holding Erlendr-slash-Ramses in the basement, inside of a cage that was designed to transport gorillas. Alyssa comes down to give Mateo and Arcadia some lemonade. “I had a thought.”
“Okay,” Mateo says in a welcoming tone.
Alyssa is watching Ramses’ face for any reaction to her words. “There are two Erlendrs in the world right now, right? There’s the one who ran off with Ramses’ body, and then the one we found in that other universe, evidently from our future.”
Mateo nods. “Right.”
“So...which one is this Meredarchos guy on his way to rescue?”
Mateo looks to Erlendr too, to see if he gives the truth away. Unclear. “Crap.”

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 17, 2398

Leona Matic is no longer a scientist trying to coordinate the construction of dozens of fusion manufacturing plants all over the country. Nor is she a wife, or a time traveler. She’s gone full secret agent, leading a team of highly trained operatives in search for the universe’s most wanted man. This mysterious Meredarchos is an invader, and this is true in every sense of the word. They’re not sure of the full extent of his power, but he can reach inside people’s minds, and fabricate an artificial sense of grievous community. He doesn’t just instill loyalty to himself in his victims, but to each other. According to what little information that SD6 was able to get out of him, it’s his dream to unite the infinite peoples of the bulk under a singular objective. The objective itself is unclear, as are the logistics of such a feat, but one thing they do know is that his power only seems to work correctly on about half of the population. Well, it works on everyone, but only half of them will pledge fealty to him. The other half will fight to the death to stop those they consider infected. Basically what he start wars.
Dressed in black tactical gear, Agent Matic opens the door with the same key that Heath copied for her when they first arrived. He, Arcadia, and Vearden probably should have changed the locks when they decided to move in here together. They’re all three at the table, eating dinner. Without specific orders, the operatives fall into formation around the diners.
“What is the meaning of this?” an outraged Heath questions.
Leona ignores him, and addresses Arcadia. “On a scale from one to your father, how good are you with psychic powers?”
“Um, six? In this reality, maybe one?”
“That’s better than anyone else we got, except for Erlendr himself, who we know we can’t trust.”
“Better for what?” Arcadia asks.
“Can we trust you? We’re looking for the fourth prisoner. Will you help us, or will you skip out on us again?”
“I apologized to Angela,” Arcadia explains, referring to the reception job she quit without giving two weeks notice.
“That’s not my point.”
Arcadia takes a breath. “I know. I’m sorry to you too.”
“Hold on,” Heath interjects. “We talked about this, remember? You don’t owe them anything.”
“I’ve not told you everything,” Arcadia says with a hand upon his. “I do owe them. I own them a lot. Thank you for being there for me. Outcasts united.”
“Outcasts united,” Vearden and Heath respond simultaneously. Is this a cult?
“I need to change first.” When Arcadia wipes her mouth with her napkin and stands, Vearden does the same. “You’re not coming,” she tells him.
Vearden laughs. “Funny.” He steps between the operatives, and heads for the medium-sized bedroom to change his clothes.
“What is that?” Leona asks Arcadia.
“It’ I would ask you kindly not to dwell on it.”
“Okay,” Leona agrees.
Arcadia goes into the same bedroom. It’s new, and it’s moving quickly. They come back out of their room together, having seemingly worked out their dispute. They’re wearing tactical gear too, which is weird on so many levels. Vearden isn’t a fighter, and Arcadia has always had special powers. Why do they own this stuff? “Are we goin’, or what?” she asks.
They say goodbye to a bitter and resentful Heath, then head down the stairs, and get into the armored truck. They don’t think their target has had enough time to build an army for himself, but he’s had a little. He could have a few bodyguards by now, who would be willing to die for him, and if he selected them right, they could have some firepower, so it’s not unreasonable to travel this way.
“Do you have any idea of where he may have gone?” Vearden asks as they head down the road.
“Local law enforcement has been instructed to observe and report,” Leona explains. “They are not to engage, even if they see him commit a crime. They appear to understand that we’re trying to formulate a pattern. He was moving eastward, but he was last spotted in Nashville, which is more to the south.”
“What have you told him about this world?” Arcadia asks her. “I mean any and every reality on this planet, in this universe?”
“Nothing. Literally nothing.”
“But he’s been talking to my father.”
“Telepathically, reportedly.”
“And my father is now in Ramses Abdulrashid’s body?”
“Sharing it, which means that he has access to all of his memories?”
“That’s right. At least that’s what he claims. You know how much he likes to lie.”
“He’s not lying about this, but he’s not telling you everything about his relationship with Meredarchos. Sharing a mind is hard. It’s not like he would have suddenly absorbed every single one of Ramses’ thoughts. He has to decide on what he wants to know, and then ping Ramses’ consciousness for the answer. Still, you have to operate under the assumption that Erlendr knows everything that Ramses does, and by extension, Meredarchos does too.”
“We’re in Kansas City. He’s in Nashville. So think. If he wants to go southeast, where will he end up? Is anything special that way?”
Leona thinks about it. Nothing really. Alabama...maybe Georgia, Flor— “Florida.”
“Exactly. Have you tried to look for it? Does it exist here?”
“Yes. We found it. We’ve been staying away, though, because it’s not safe. It lures you in, and transports you to the Dead Sea.”
“Where are we talking about?” Vearden asks. “Where is he going?
Leona pops a holographic map up from her watch, and traces the highways from here to Orlando. He’s been going in the right direction so far. “The Fountain of Youth. If he gets there, he’ll have more than enough temporal energy to get his powers back, assuming that that’s what he needs, and he can resist the temptation. We don’t know how he works, or if it will affect him the same way as others.”
“It might, or it might not,” Arcadia reasons. “Erlendr may have convinced him that it does. Either way, we have to beat him to the punch.”

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 16, 2398

All hell broke loose, and so did the two prisoners still left inside the SD6 blacksite. Rothko Ladhiffe, in Alt!Mateo’s body, figured out how to get his powers back, though they still don’t know how he did it, or what took him so long. It had been a few weeks since they gave him what they believed would be just another perfectly harmless flashlight. The man is not well, and they were just trying to keep him comfortable while they decided on a more permanent solution. They are not the time police, and he is not their responsibility. Neither is this Meredarchos fellow, now in Andile’s body, who evidently came from another universe. That’s about all they have been able to learn about him. When Rothko blasted his way out of the facility, he damaged enough of the building to collapse it in on itself, which provided Meredarchos with enough space to escape too. He will be harder to find, because they don’t know where he might go. Rothko, on the other hand, is completely predictable.
Fancying himself a superhero, he literally flew out of the rubble. As near as Leona can guess, Rothko Torches have the ability to teleport and accelerate particles of light, and possibly other things, turning them into extremely powerful rocket nozzles for their size. He obviously overestimated his ability to control the damn things, and fell to his death instead. But Alt!Mateo can’t die. Whenever he gets close, the time gods transport him back to where he’s supposed to die in an earlier timeline. It doesn’t happen there either, though, because a time mirror is waiting underneath him, so he falls back through, and returns to the Third Rail every time. That’s why Alt!Mateo and Leona Reaver had to escape their substrates, and transfer to new ones. At some point, the mirror trick is going to stop working, be it naturally, or following human intervention. They are not safe bodies to be in, but Alt!Mateo’s had at least one more life in it, because Rothko has landed exactly where they expected, in that unremarkable parking lot in Crown Center.
“Oh, uhh...hi.” Rothko stands, and looks at the small crowd. He reaches up to feel for what’s around his neck.
“That collar absorbs temporal energy,” Ramses warns. “If you try to use your powers, it will all just go in there, and be neutralized.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“You escaped from prison,” Mateo explains.
“I wasn’t talking to you.” Rothko is still looking right at Ramses.
Ramses clears his throat. “You’re unwell, and a danger to yourself and others. We’re here to take you to a new facility. It will be safer, and you won’t have any flashlights. You won’t have any lights at all. They’ll be situated outside of your cell, and come in through windows near the ceiling. You have lost the weirdest privilege ever, the ability to control how bright it is.”
“It’s not a weird privilege,” Mateo counters. “It’s just weird to lose it.”
“Wait. What if I gave you information?” Rothko pleads.
“What could you possibly give us?” Mateo asks.
“How do you think I broke out? Could I have done it on my own?”
“Shut up!” Ramses presses a button on his remote, sending an electrical shock to Rothko’s collar that’s strong enough to knock him to the ground.
Mateo and the four SD6 guards stare at him.
“He was...he was, ya know...”
“Gonna blow your cover?” Mateo guesses.
“What are you talking about?”
Mateo teleports away briefly, and then comes back, but this time behind Ramses. He wraps the prototype of the collar around his neck. It works all right, but there appears to be a limitation to how much temporal energy it can absorb, which the real Ramses found unacceptable, so that’s why he built the model that Rothko is wearing. Hopefully it will be good enough for now. “What did you think was gonna happen here, that Rothko was just gonna keep his mouth shut?”
“What are you talking about?” Erlendr whines.
“Save it, I know who you are. You people think I’m so stupid, but I have a lot of life experience now that I didn’t have before.”
“Mateo, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m your best friend, you can trust me.”
“Oh my God, why are you so bad at this? Is it because you’re so used to being the most powerful person in the room that you get lazy about tricking people? You don’t sound like Ramses at all. You’ve been weird since we tried to switch your bodies.”
Erlendr knows he’s been caught. “You didn’t try to switch our bodies. You tried to trap me in the Insulator!”
“Instead, he’s there, and you’re still in there.”
“Oh no, he’s in here too. When you switch bodies with someone, you don’t have access to their thoughts and memories, but when you share a mind—Mateo, I could tell you things...”
“I don’t care. When Leona gets back from trying to find the other prisoner, she’ll help us put everyone where they belong. I might even stick you in Leona Reaver’s body after all, and then let you die in her timeline in her place.”
“It’s impossible,” Erlendr claims, shrugging Ramses’ shoulders. “It’s a loop. He’ll always end up here.” He looks over at one of the guards. “Go ahead and shoot him. He’ll disappear at the last millisecond, and be back totally fine tomorrow. You can shoot this Mateo too. He can’t die either. Wink,” he says with a wink.
“Come on,” Mateo says, starting to escort Erlendr and Ramses to the prisoner transport van. Two of the guards help Rothko off the ground, and follow.
“Wait, what if I gave you information?” Erlendr echoes Rothko’s words from before.
“Ha! Haven’t heard this joke before. Go ahead, I’m listening.”
“We talked on the inside, while I was still in Trina’s body.”
“You and Rothko,” Mateo assumes.
“Yes, but also with Meredarchos.”
“He was several stories below you, there’s no way.”
“He doesn’t need a voice to talk,” Erlendr insists, stopping at the steps up to the back of the van. “He has psychic abilities. Now, they’re suppressed while he’s in this reality—or else he would have taken over the whole world by now—but since I have a history of telepathy too, we can connect.”
“So you can use your own abilities, which should also be suppressed in this reality, to find him.” Mateo shakes his head. That doesn’t make any sense.
“Not only that, but I’m the only one whose head he can’t get into. Matty, trust me, you don’t want this guy out in the world. He will find a way to get his full power back, and he will destroy everything. It’s what he does. We don’t know why.”
“Why is it that you know so much about the bulk, but you had never heard of the Third Rail?”
“No one calls it that, Matt. Jesus, I just didn’t know your words for it.”
“Uhuh,” Mateo says sarcastically. “Get in the van.” He not so gently helps Erlendr up the steps, and begins to shackle him in place, then watches as the guards do the same to Rothko. This is a huge mess.
“You need me, Mateo!” Erlendr shouts. He keeps repeating that, and similar declarations, after Mateo shuts the doors, and heads for the front. “You need me!”

Friday, November 18, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: September 15, 2398

Rothko Ladhiffe wasn’t born evil. He wouldn’t even call himself that now. Maybe he fell off the right path a little bit, but he can get back on if someone would just give him a chance. These people have not done that for him. They trapped him in that glass tchotchke thing, and when he finally got out, he found himself in somebody else’s body. He didn’t ask to be here, and he doesn’t deserve to be locked up in this cell. They don’t even let him out for yard time, what kind of prison is this place?
The door opens. One of the strangers walks in—not a guard who works here, but someone in charge. “Hello, how are you doing today?” he asks.
“I’m not great,” Rothko replies.
The man nods. “It’s a little dark in here. Would you like a flashlight or two?”
Asshole. “I’m not crazy. I’ve transformed flashlights into powerful tools before. I can do it again. I just need the right model.”
“Oh, Mister Ladhiffe, I know all about your chosen one powers, believe me.”
“Who are you?”
“You know me, Rothy. We’ve whispered to each other, through the vents.”
Rothko thinks about it, trying to remember. “Belinder?”
“Close enough.”
“You were a little girl.”
“Not anymore.”
“You went back to your old body? How did you find it? Can you find mine?”
Belinder rolls his eyes. “This isn’t my real body. I stole it from someone else.”
“Oh.” Rothko frowns. “So you can’t help me.”
“I didn’t say that. Like I was saying, you’re a chosen one, which makes you special beyond special. Your mind has the power, not your body. The reason these flashlights aren’t working for you is because you’re in the wrong reality. There’s something here suppressing your power.”
“Can that be fixed?”
“Yes.” He takes a syringe out of his pocket. “With this.”
Rothko gulps. “Is it gonna hurt?”
“A little, I guess. It’s a needle, man, man up.”
“What exactly does it do?”
“It’s a concentrated elixir of temporal energy, which will activate your powers, and allow you to break out of here.”
“Why don’t you just hold the door open for me?”
“I can’t blow my cover. Everyone still thinks Ramses is in charge of this body. I need you to wait for about a week. Hide the syringe in the casing of one of your flashlights, and then take it with you, so they never find it.”
“Then where do I go?”
“Find shelter, I know how resourceful you are; surviving on your own on Durus.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Rothko explains.
“I know, but you kinda were, weren’t you? You couldn’t truly trust anyone.”
“How can I trust you?”
“Because I’m giving you the temporal energy.”
“How do I know that that’s what this stuff is? Maybe it’s poison.”
“I’m not breaking you out to help me. I’m just doing it to help you. So inject it ,or don’t, I don’t really care. But wait until next week.”
Belinder gets up to leave.
“Wait, what if I need to contact you on the outside? I don’t have any money, or anything.”
“I’ll find you, don’t you worry about that.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Rothko smiles softly as he watches the friendly man who used to be a little girl, who used to be a different man, leave his cell. Once he’s alone, he hides himself under the covers and twirls the syringe around in his fingers. He admires it, and gives it a little taste...just plastic. It’s what’s inside that counts. How long did he say to wait? A week? He pulls the covers off his face, and looks around the cell. There’s no calendar on the wall. How the hell is he meant to know when it’s been a week? It could be any minute now. It could be right now. It probably is. He removes the cap of the needle with his needle, and spits it out. He’s always wanted to do that.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of injecting it into his neck. It hurts so good, he wishes he could get more of it. Even without the powers it’s going to give him, he would love it as long as it always felt like this. Energy is right, it surges all over his body like a PG-13 orgasm. He shakes and trembles to make sure that it reaches every corner of his veins. He gets out of bed, and starts to dance around, knocking over some of the flashlights that he has set up. They call these things Rothko Torches, and apparently it doesn’t matter what kind they are. He can transform them all, he just needs to figure out how. He first clears a space in the middle of the cell by moving the flashlights a little closer together. Then he just spins around, letting the light warm his skin, and trying to send energy back down into the beams. The first time he did this, he had no idea what he was doing; it just happened. Now he’s doing it on purpose. Now he really wants it.
He’s starting to think that nothing is going to change when suddenly it does. The flashlights begin to shake. It’s not enough to knock them over, but they feel like they’re about to explode. Afraid of what might happen, and without any other choice, Rothko dives under the bed, taking some of the flashlights with him. He doesn’t want to throw them back, so he desperately switches them off. Seconds later, there’s an explosion. Concrete particulates and dust start flying all around, so he tucks his head in, and shuts his eyes. He’s not sure what’s happening, but not nothin’, that’s for sure.
When the dust settles, Rothko crawls out from under the bed. The flashlights have been destroyed. If the blast itself didn’t burn them out, the falling debris finished them off. He looks up at a clear blue sky; his way to freedom. One of the guards forces his way into the room, and points a gun at him. Rothko takes out one of the surviving flashlights—which should officially be called Rothko Torches now—and sends a photon blast into the man’s chest. He smiles proudly, having not really used one of these things very much before. They were stolen from him shortly after they were created. The guard is out cold, but there will be more. He gathers the surviving torches from the floor, and ties them up in his sheet, also tying it around his neck. He keeps two of them out, so he can use them like Iron Man’s rocket hands. He flies out of the building, whoopin’ and hollerin’ like he’s riding a bomb in a cowboy hat. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t know how to aim these things. He loses control rather quickly, and starts to plummet to his death, dropping all of the flashlights on the way. He wakes up in a parking lot.