Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: October 28, 2398

Alyssa was closer yesterday, so Leona called and asked her to go out to Marie’s secret bunker in the woods to check on her Mateo. He was there, chained to the table, which was bolted to the floor. He didn’t think that Fax!Mateo was evil, so he was just chillin’ in there. He figured he would try to escape if no one came for him after two days. That would mean that the team believed the swapped twin gambit, and no one would be looking for him. It hadn’t occurred to him that Fax!Mateo would sacrifice himself to ensure that Alt!Mateo’s body died where it was supposed to in Reality One, taking with him anyone else’s consciousness trapped in the same substrate. It’s been about a day, and his plan seems to have worked. Alt!Mateo did not show up in the parking lot, and no reports have come in regarding destructive activity that matches Meredarchos’ M.O. He says that he can come back, but the chances of the team being the ones to have to deal with him again are low. They did all they could. They kicked him out of the house.
Everyone came back to the hotel, but they’re talking in the parking lot, in the new flying vehicle that Winona gifted them with, which yet remains unnamed. Kivi is up in the suite, keeping an eye on Bhulan. She will be returning to her SD6 team shortly, but she’s currently on leave, so she can get some rest after all this trouble. When she goes back, she’ll be part of missions unrelated to time travel, alternate realities, and powers. She’s just going to be a regular operative. It’s her calling. Arcadia and Vearden are planning their future together, so they may not stick around for much longer either. They probably don’t know yet themselves.
Bhulan has been exercising her right to remain silent. She follows all of their instructions, and accepts the food they place in front of her, but she doesn’t respond to questions, and she doesn’t speak up voluntarily. She’s not a prisoner, because she hasn’t done anything wrong, but they have strongly advised her not to run. She hasn’t tried yet, but she will. She knows where Danica is, and likely Tamerlane Pryce and Dalton Hawke, among who knows who else. She has a lot of answers that she’s simply unwilling to divulge. It’s not unreasonable of her to try to keep this information a secret, but they would at least like to understand her motives. “She’s protecting them,” Mateo offers as an explanation.
“Or she’s protecting us,” Marie counters.
Arcadia nods. “Bhulan Cargill is one of the most powerful travelers I’ve heard of, and you can’t rely on the power-suppressing properties of the Third Rail to protect you from her. I recommend we tread lightly. The people in my family are powerful too, of course, but we have never been guarded with our motives. The same cannot be said of her. It’s unclear who and what she cares about. Don’t think she won’t hurt you just because she hasn’t before. Her strength lies in her independence and enigmatic...ness. Plus, she’s theoretically been living in this reality for billions of years. It’s hard to know what that does to a person, even after knowing those who have done the same, like Danica.”
“If we let her go, will she see that as a sign of good faith?” Alyssa asks.
“Probably,” Arcadia answers. “Again, it’s hard to know what a person like that is thinking.”
“If we do let her go, would there be a way to track her?” Mateo is specifically asking Ramses.
Ramses is only half-listening. He has his laptop open, with the Insulator of Life plugged into it, looking for his own answers. Someone is in there all right, but it’s impossible to tell whether it’s Erlendr, or someone who has been stored the whole time. Ramses didn’t get a chance to test the interface before the whole thing went down at the black site. He’s working on it now.
“Rambo,” Mateo says.
“I’ve heard you can spray people with something, like a...isotope, and that would allow you to track their movements. If we let Bhulan go, could she lead us to whatever she’s keeping secret from us?”
“You could do that, yes, except I believe that sort of thing is illegal, even under military direction. What I would do instead is launch another brain scanner. That way, we can find her whenever we need to, and it won’t wear off over time, like any radioactive spray would.”
“You can do that?” Leona asks. “You can build another one?”
“Of course I can,” he answers. “I just need a way to get it into space, and a way to deploy the payload, or access to a satellite that’s already up there. I’ve always been able to do it, I just don’t have the authorization. The last time we tried, it barely worked.”
“It’s more complicated now,” Marie reminds them. “Honeycutt is under heavy scrutiny for the fusion rocket launch. I doubt she has any favors to cash in.”
“Yeah,” Leona agrees. “The lab was run as a joint effort between a university, certain parts of the government, and private investors. It was never given the right to build a ship, let alone launch it, let alone launch it on that day without warning.”
“Still, maybe you could work that angle. Just because you don’t have any favors coming to you, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for them in exchange for something later,” Mateo suggests. “Having access to space would help us beyond this one endeavor.”
“I’ll do it,” Marie volunteers. “My history with her, and them, is longer, and Leona has things to do here. I’ll try to keep all of you out of it, from now on. I’ve been sulking for far too long, and it isn’t helping anyone. Heath’s gone, and I need to accept that.”
There is no response to this revelation. It’s her decision.
“What’s that sound?” Alyssa asks.
There’s a buzzing noise outside, getting louder, approaching the entrance. “That’s probably for me,” Ramses says. He stands up, and opens the hatch.
A drone is hovering in front of him. “Package for Ramses Abdulrashid?” comes a voice from the drone’s speaker.
“It’s Abdulrashid.” He takes the stylus, and signs his name on the screen. Then he holds his arms out to let the package drop into them. He comes back into the vehicle, and grabs the nearest blade, which happens to be Mateo’s quantum duplication knife.
“What is it?” Leona asks.
“A neural VR headset.”
“What for?” she presses, growing suspicious.
“I need to see who’s in the Insulator of Life. All I can gather is how much energy is being stored in there. If I knew how much energy one person takes up, I could estimate how many people are in there, but without a baseline, I’m just guessing. I can tell you there’s at least one, but there could be hundreds.”
“So you’re going to go into it yourself to find out?”
“Not fully,” he explains. “That’s what this is for. It will allow me to communicate with anyone inside. Don’t worry, there’s no chance of me getting trapped.”
“I don’t like that you’re the one doing it,” Leona admits, “considering your history with this object.”
Ramses stops examining the headset he’s just unwrapped, and looks incredulously at the wall. “What would you have me do?”
“She would have someone else go in.” Mateo takes the headset from him. “Tell me what to do. I’ll find out who’s in there once and for all.”
Ramses looks over at Leona, who shrugs. “I won’t make this decision unilaterally. I’m going to stop doing that so much. It’s been getting us into trouble. We vote.”
“What about Kivi?” Vearden asks.
Leona sighs. “Alyssa, please go tell Kivi that Bhulan is free to leave whenever she wants. You’ll both vote by voice over the phone. This isn’t a congressional hearing.”
“All in favor of Mateo doing this, raise your hand,” Leona puts forth after Alyssa hops out.
Everyone raises their hand, except for Ramses, but he doesn’t want to be the odd man out, so he follows suit. A few minutes later, Alyssa and Kivi both agree with the group, and inform them that Bhulan is packing her belongings. She didn’t come here with any of it. It’s all stuff that the team gifted her.”
Mateo leans his chair back, and lets Leona affix the headset to him. Ramses, meanwhile, links it to his computer, and makes sure that it’s talking to the Insulator of Life. When everything’s ready, he confirms that Mateo is ready as well, and then he switches it on.
Mateo finds himself being pulled into a room that looks like the inside of the Insulator. It’s not much, because Ramses didn’t take time to design anything fancy. Before too long, two figures begin to materialize, as Ramses pulls consciousnesses in from the real Insulator’s storage. One of them is Erlendr. He looks around a little, and then crosses his arms. The other figure takes a little bit longer, but once it’s complete, Mateo can clearly see that it’s Bhulan. “How long have you been in here?”
“One second,” Bhulan answers, “but that tells you nothing. Time doesn’t pass in this thing. This is the first moment I’ve been aware of my surroundings.”
“What was the date when you were stuffed in here then?” Mateo questions.
She sighs. “There was no date. It was prior to recorded time.”
“Shit. Someone is out there with your body. Do you have any idea who?”
“Yeah, I know exactly who.”
“Care to share with the class?” Mateo asks.
“Not the whole class.”
Mateo closes his virtual eyes, and sends a message to the real world. “Ram, can you discern three distinct signatures now? One of them is me.”
“Try to toggle one of the others off. You have a fifty-fifty shot.”
Ramses gets it right on the first try. Erlendr disappears with no complaints.
“Go ahead please,” Mateo prompts Bhulan. “Who is in your body? It’s important; people I care about are with her right now.”
“You care about this person too.”
“Keep going.” He’s getting anxious about the answer.
“It’s your sister, Aquila.”

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