Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: October 18, 2398

Leona pulls up to the building, and checks the text message again. Yes, this is the right address. It’s a news station; cable news, it appears. She’s sure she should recognize it—it’s probably really famous—but she’s found it hard to stomach these people’s ideas of journalistic integrity. Why would Winona summon her here? This is fishy. Ah, she may as well go in and check it out. It’s not an abandoned warehouse, after all, so if it’s another blacksite, there sure are a lot of cars in the parking lot. She gets out, and enters through the front door. The desk attendant asks for her name, and when she gives it, he hands her a badge. It already has her face on it. Maybe it is a government building, and the news station thing is just a front. He pulls out a map of the interior, and draws a pathway from this location to the greenroom, where she’s apparently supposed to go. She badges herself in, and heads off.
Winona is sitting on a couch in the greenroom, tapping on her phone. She holds one finger up, and keeps tapping with the other hand. She smiles up at Leona when she’s done. “Thank you for coming. Welcome to New York.”
“Why am I here, Honeycutt?”
Winona puts her phone away. “The day we launched the ship, did you launch something else? Or was there a payload in our rocket that we weren’t told about? I’m not mad, I just need to know before I go on.”
“Go on what?”
Winona doesn’t answer.
“You’re going on TV.”
“Someone has to answer for the launch. I’ve been on my damage control tour. Again, I’m not mad. We were going to send that thing into space sooner or later, we just weren’t planning on having Miss Walton or the kids on board. This particular show is particularly important, because of the other guest.”
“Who is the other guest?”
“The lead engineer for the Snowglobe Collective.” So the sinister organization exists in this reality too. That could mean that someone is purposely matching history, like with the War Memorial, or it’s actually the same company that spans multiple realities. “Well, he’s not really the lead engineer. He’s more the mouthpiece, but he’s going to use science to show how irresponsible we were.”
“They’re the ones who own the satellite,” Leona guesses.
“So you did launch something else? Did you attack the satellite on purpose? Were you targeting them?”
“It was a coincidence that had nothing to do with them,” Leona tries to explain. “We needed to orbit Earth to find Meredarchos and Erlendr. We didn’t have time to build and launch our own so Mateo...”
“So Mateo what?” Winona prods.
“He teleported up there.”
Winona nods. “Because of course you people can breathe in space.”
“It’s complicated.”
She sighs. “It always is.” She removes a holstered gun from her bag, and hands it to Leona. “Here’s your sidearm.”
She jiggles the gun. “Yeah, you’re my bodyguard.”
“Since when?” Leona questions.
“Since that’s how I got you into the station. Don’t worry, it’s not just a cover. I need you to actually protect me. This is a crime hole.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a special place where certain crimes are legal as long as they’re justified in the eyes of the entity that dug the hole, i.e. the guy who owns it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The mouthpiece out there. We’re going to have a debate. If I lose, has the right to kill me. You cost his company hundreds of billions of dollars in potential revenue from their research investment.” There’s that high inflation again.
“You brought me here knowing that I would be trapped.”
“If I win, you can kill him.”
“I don’t want to kill him.”
“You won’t have to. It’ll be our prerogative. You’re my champion. He has his own, who I’m sure is not as good as you.”
Leona turns away from the gun. “I’m not trained on firearms.”
Winona reaches into her jacket, and pulls a stick from her breast pocket. She swings it down to telescope it open.
Leona rolls her eyes, and takes it from her. “That’ll work.”
“Thank you.”
“Is there a lawbook, or something here?”
Winona beams a file to her device. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m going to send it to my loophole expert.”
When called, the two of them leave the greenroom. Leona watches from side stage as Winona takes her place on one side of a table. A well-dressed man sits down on the other, while the host, Solomon Powers sits at the head. He gives his opening spiel to the audience, and then prompts the debate.
The lead engineer, a Mr. Jacey Plaskett throws a graphic to the space above his shoulder, not just in chroma key, but as a hologram. “What you’re looking at here is the last known location of our research satellite before it was attacked on the tenth of October. As you can see, at 17:56, the satellite begins a decaying orbit. It should have been able to stay up there for three years, which would be more than enough time for us to course correct, but roughly 36 hours later, we lost contact with it entirely. Not even the world’s greatest orbital tracker has any idea where it is. In between the time of the mysterious attacked, and the loss of signal, that woman right across from me launched an unsanctioned, unworthy, un-American fusion-powered rocketship from the weirdest longitudinal parallel imaginable in Kansas!”
“It’s in Missouri, actually. And how was it un-American?” Winona questions him.
“We have reason to believe that you employed scientists from Croatia.” He says that word with such disdain. “I can’t think of a country worse than it, besides the other baby-killing nations.”
“We’re not here to debate the morality of medical abortions,” the host reasons. “Please keep your remarks on topic.”
“Sorry about that, Solo. Thank you for your understanding.” Jacey turns his attention back to Winona. “What was your explanation for the launch again? You were testing fusion motion endurance?”
“That’s right,” Winona replies.
“What do you have to say about the timing?”
“It’s a coincidence. Our rocket was nowhere near your satellite at any time.”
“Right, and where is it now?”
This is all putting the team at risk. They’re at fault, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. Admitting responsibility would open the door for the authorities and the public to ask questions that neither Winona, nor the rest of the SD6, want to answer. The team doesn’t want that either. “That’s confidential.” It’s all she can say.
“Of course it is.”
“Let’s take a look at the Scales of Truth!” Solomon interjects. A curtain behind him slides open. The scale is pretty much to the table on Jacey’s side. “Oh, it’s not looking good for you, Miss Honeycutt.”
Leona’s phone dings. After she reads Kivi’s message, she steps into frame, wielding her telescopic stick, shocking all. “I challenge for control of the Microsovereignty.”
The audience gasps and Solomon smiles. “Listen, Little Miss—”
“What did you just call me?”
“Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know your name—”
“You don’t need to know my name, you just need to take off your jacket, and come down here for a fight.”
He’s still in shock. “A challenge for sovereignty entails a fight to the death.”
“I can choose to show you mercy when you’re on the floor and unconscious.”
“I don’t think you know who I am. I didn’t get to my position by being a little pussy cat. I earned it through strength and mercilessness. You’re not going to beat me, I don’t care how long your stick is.”
Leona lifts the stick up a little, and looks down at it. Then she throws it to the side. “Then I’ll do it with my bare hands.”
Everyone laughs, except for Winona, who knows what she can do. “Solomon, don’t take the bait. All she wants is for you to unilaterally rule in my favor. But rest assured, she will beat you, and you will lose everything.”
Solomon keeps staring at Leona for a moment, then looks over at Winona. His face hardens, and he starts to remove his jacket. This is a man who does not operate by silly things, like honor or morality. He likes to keep score, and there is no greater threat to his winning streak than a challenge that he doesn’t accept. He’s the kind of guy who would follow the old saying that goes, you miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take, even though any reasonable person would realize that the chances are actually zero percent. He rolls up his sleeves as he’s dramatically walking down the steps.
Leona leaves her rental in the lot. Winona drives them both back to the airport, where they’ll board a flight to Kansas City. “Did you know I would do that?”
Winona gulps. “I wasn’t aware of that loophole. I was just hoping you would beat his champion in combat. If you had, I would have gotten a second chance at the debate.”
“That wouldn’t have been enough.”
“I realize that now. I’m sorry,” Winona says after a beat. “The first time is hard.”
Leona lets her forehead bounce against the rattling window. “That wasn’t the first time I killed,” Leona contradicts. “It’s not even the first time I did it to gain control over something that I didn’t want. It’s just the first time I didn’t do it on purpose.”

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