Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 28, 2398

Alyssa and Ramses continued to discuss the plan to fake Leona’s death with Arcadia and Vearden. Their live-in guards got in on the conversation too, contributing their experience and expertise as career military servicemen. The National Intelligence Agency has an entire department tasked with faking people’s deaths, usually for witness and turned asset relocation purposes. Their methods usually involve using completely unrelated corpses as proof; they’ve never done anything like this, but they have not been read into the situation anyway, so no one is allowed to reach out to them about it. This is all very ghoulish of them, but they keep reminding themselves, and each other, that it would be a lot worse if they were planning an actual murder. The point is to prevent someone from dying, and if all goes according to plan, no one will get hurt at all.
Here’s what they’re going to do. First, they’re going to transfer Erlendr’s consciousness from the Insulator of Life, into Leona Reaver’s body. Well, first they have to convince him to play along, but assuming that he does, they’re going to equip him with concealed body armor to prevent anyone else from managing to actually hurt him before they get the chance to complete their performance. He’s going to make himself known in a very public space where Leona’s face is sure to be recognized. They will pick a place that is having a parade, or something, so it will be really crowded, and possibly even filmed and streamed. They’ve not chosen any event yet, because they’re not yet certain of their timeline. They may plant operatives in the audience to make sure Erlendr isn’t standing out in the open without anyone noticing.
Their fake bounty hunter—which will be an undercover SD6 specialist—will then begin his or her pursuit. If any other hunters happen to be in the area, other undercovers will run interference against them. The chase won’t last long, or go far, because they want the audience they end up with to be able to see the whole thing. Erlendr will duck into a car, and drive off a little ways before a bomb goes off. This is the trickiest part of the magic trick, because they don’t want anyone else to get hurt, so it has to be highly controlled, and focused, but not so focused that it looks like maybe Erlendr survived it. The timing has to be perfect too, because they can’t allow people to see the Leona Reaver body disappear when fate intervenes, and sends it to the other timeline. Tinted windows will be key, along with maybe a little remote driving.
They have to control for security cameras, audience involvement, and other crazy eventualities, this is not something that they’ll be able to pull off today. That’s probably all right, though, because they want Arcadia’s baby bump to get a little bigger, in case she gets recognized after the thing. That brings them back to the crux of the plan, which is Erlendr’s participation. He has no loyalty to them, so figuring out a decent incentive was the hardest part, and they did need to come up with one, because if they tried to force it on him, he would probably claim to be a twin or triplet in public, and ruin their whole gambit. They think they have a way to go about it, but they’re going to need Arcadia’s help. They don’t really have a Plan B if they can’t get him to cooperate.
“This won’t hurt the baby, right?”
Ramses smiles. “First of all, no, it wouldn’t. But I knew you would be concerned, which is why you’re not going in cerebrally. You’re just going to use these.” He holds up the goggles.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m connecting my brain to the simulation, which will make it feel like I’m really there...except I always turn off my pain receptors. You, on the other hand, will only be able to see what it looks like through regular VR. You won’t feel a thing, but you can pilot your avatar using this controller, if you want.”
“Okay.” She accepts the googles.
“Lyss?” Ramses asks.
“I don’t want her to be alone in there, even just as an avatar, so I’m going to set myself up first, and then you can push that green button in the corner of the screen to activate her once I’m jacked in, okay?”
“Then when she gives you the signal, press the purple button.”
“Green button, then purple, got it.”
“Thanks,” he says to her. “Are you ready?” he asks Arcadia.
“I know kung-fu,” Arcadia says casually as she’s wrapping the goggles around her head. She might actually know it for reals.
Erlendr sits up in his cot, and blinks at the lights that have just turned on. They’re not real eyes, just visual coding that’s been programmed to become distressed due to virtual lighting changes to make it feel more real. “What’s this about?”
“Are we having fun yet?” Ramses asks.
“Barrels. What do you want?”
“We would like you to help us save Leona Matic’s life.”
“This oughta be good.”
Ramses and Arcadia go over the plan, altering certain details, so he doesn’t know too much about it yet. He has to agree to help them first, then he gets to know exactly how they’re going to fake his death.
“You want me to knowingly put myself in harm’s way, all for a woman that I couldn’t care less about? What’s in it for me?”
Ramses clicks the button on a little fob. The wall behind him, opposite Erlendr, falls backwards, and lands in the grass. The field of daisies where Bhulan was staying is there. Erlendr could run out and frolic if he wanted to. “This is a sign of good faith. You can live there, instead of in this room. If you don’t agree to help us, we won’t even put you back in here. That’s how important this is to us.”
Erlendr starts to speak in a weird mocking voice, but it’s hard to tell who he’s mocking. “They let you try it free? It must be good!”
Ramses looks quizzically at Arcadia.
“It’s an old television advertisement,” she explains.
“Oh. This isn’t your reward. Like I said, it’s a good faith gesture. Your reward...is this.” He takes a half-step to the side to get out of Arcadia’s way.
She takes off her ruana, and lifts her shirt to reveal the bump on her belly. It’s just a virtual construct, but Ramses built this avatar by scanning Arcadia today, and extrapolating what she would look like if she still had her real body, and it was pregnant, instead of Leona Delaney’s body. “If you don’t help us, you’ll never meet your granddaughter, because she will be killed before she can even be born. Now, Alyssa.” She transforms into the image of her current self, as Leona. “What say you, father?”
Erlendr frowns. “I’ll do it, but your plan sucks, I have...many suggestions.”

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 27, 2398

Ramses and Alyssa went into town for an extended lunch, and extended it further with a walk in the park. They returned to Danica Lake a few hours after leaving Leona to her solo mission. He dropped a single probe in the water. They sat in the trunk of their SUV and ate ice cream while they waited for confirmation that the Bridgette was gone. The probe didn’t detect any technology down there, so Leona’s plan seems to have worked. They waited for another hour after that, because...time travel, but she never came out, so they just drove back to Kansas City, hoping that she would be there. She wasn’t, so they are trying to move on without her, and be patient. Temporal navigation is an inexact science. She and Mateo may just be in the middle of overshooting the mark, and they’ll be back in a few days. If they never return, the rest of the team is to assume that she made it to her destination, and they’re living in the past together. That’s Plan B. Of course, she may have failed to find him at all, and it’s all gone to shit, but it’s best not to dwell on that possibility. It’s unhealthy.
Ramses woke up this morning, realizing that he hadn’t seen Marie for a while. She didn’t say that she was going back to SD6, but he called Winona anyway, and she claimed to have not seen her. He called Arcadia next, but she had no idea where Marie could be. Vearden and Arcadia are in their new home in the suburbs, but it’s not an ideal situation. She walks around with a disguise to prevent anyone from recognizing Leona’s face, and they have two live-in SD6 operatives who protect her at all times in shifts. They still don’t know how they could get her and Leona out of this predicament. She has a lot of fans in this world, but just as many enemies, including those who couldn’t care less about her politics, but would like to cash in on the bounty that’s on her head. Hey, maybe that’s why Leona can’t come back. The chances that she undershot the mark is just as likely, and she’s been hiding out somewhere all this time. If he can solve the bounty problem, it won’t matter anymore. But how?
Alyssa tilts her head, and thinks about it. “Hm. No...” she says to herself.
“What is it?”
“Nah, we couldn’t do it, it’s not even worth mentioning.”
“We’re brainstorming here, sister, No bad ideas.”
“Well, I’ve not been with you guys all that much, but I’ve already seen you switch people’s minds to different bodies to trick other people on multiple occasions.”
“You’re right, that wouldn’t work. We don’t have any extra bodies hanging around, except for Leona Reaver’s, and that doesn’t actually change anything. Plus, Arcadia needs that body right now to gestate her baby.”
“I’m not suggesting we move either of them to Reaver, but that body would be involved, assuming you could work your magic with that weird mini-consciousness you created a long time ago.”
“What are you talking about?” he questions.
“The problem is that people want Leona dead, but only one or two people can actually kill her, and collect that bounty, right? If she dies, people will stop trying to come after her, because they’ll be chasing after a ghost.”
He stares at her. “That’ll never work. We can’t kill the Leona Reaver body, it will just jump back to her reality of origin, and then jump right back here. I mean, the group that set up the bounty will expect proof of death.”
“You’ll have proof,” Alyssa contends. She uses airquotes, “kill her in a very public way, let her body go through that weird time loop cycle, and then delete the consciousness to make it vacant again. A body without a mind just looks like a dead body, doesn’t it?”
“Well, if we’re just going to give up the body for proof, why do we need to pretend to kill her at all?”
“Technically, you wouldn’t, but...think about the people who are going after that bounty, and the people who are rooting for it. They want to see her suffer. They want the spectacle. It will make it harder to disprove if they both see it happen, and see the outcome. They want to watch her walking around alive, and then...stop being that way.”
“And what happens to Reaver’s body afterwards? I’m not asking, I honestly don’t know; we would have to pay a corner, or something.”
She shrugs somewhat dismissively. “You don’t have to pay a coroner. The government has their own, enough of them know our situation.”
“I dunno, does that really help Arcadia? She would still have to wear a disguise.”
“True, but I think that it would be safer since people will not be looking for that face anymore. If someone is suspicious of the girl in the store wearing sunglasses, she’ll be like, oh, I get that a lot. Don’t be racist. Plus I’m preggers, look at me.
Ramses chuckles. “She did have a cute little baby bump last I saw her.” He breathes in deeply. “This isn’t a bad idea, it’s just not a very exciting one. It’s pretty morbid, really. You’re suggesting I go out in public and pretend to murder someone very believably. Even if the government can get me out of jail—”
You? Who said anything about you doing anything? No, it would be someone from the government; a trained assassin. Don’t forget to use all of your assets.”
“There are a lot of moving parts here, it’s not something we’ll be able to accomplish today.”
“Then let’s work on it. I’ll call Winona.”
“I don’t want to get her involved just yet. Short of being able to contact the real Leona about this, we have an obligation to at least ask Arcadia how she feels about it.”
The two of them leave the lab, and head for the suburbs.
One of the personal security guards answers, kind of surprising them with regular clothes, but they obviously don’t want to arouse suspicion. He’s probably pretending to be a cousin, or something. “Come on in, Mister Abdulrashid,” he says, stepping aside.
“Thank you.” They haven’t met, but they must have all of their photos on file.
The couple is sitting in their breakfast nook with their pancakes. She’s holding her stomach. It’s not that big yet, but not as slight as Alyssa expected.
“Hey, what’s up?” Vearden asks
They sit at the table next to them, and go over the beginnings of their dastardly plans. They both listen intently, and don’t interrupt. When it’s over, Arcadia nods understandingly, and stands up to look out the window. “Are you asking for my permission, or my opinion? Or are you just letting me know what you’re going to do?”
“The first two things,” Ramses replies.
She looks over her shoulder at him. “I’ll agree under one condition, and it is non-negotiable.”
Now he’s real worried. “What’s that?”
“Don’t make one of your weird mini-mind things. Make my father do it.”

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 26, 2398

Bhulan bolted as soon as the coast was clear. Leona and Ramses hoped that she would stick around to answer more questions, which they were prepared to ask gradually, instead of in the form of an interrogation, but she wasn’t into it. This is why Leona chose not to tell her anything about the seed of her plan to retrieve Mateo. She is probably on her way to her little secretive cabal to share information. That’s fine, as long as they don’t go anywhere near Lebanon. That is where Leona’s plan begins.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” Ramses asks. They’re parked on the far side of Danica Lake, waiting for the sun to go down more.
“The fewer the better,” Leona replies with a shake of her head. “Standard transportation rules, you can only take two people with you.”
He nods.
“Besides, I’m sure you have to get back to the lab. I know you have a thousand things on the agenda.”
“Not really, now that Curtis is gone. I have no idea where he’s getting his temporal energy, or why The Officiant was able to just swoop in and disappear.”
“Then just rest,” Leona orders affectionately. “It’s been a hard...” Her first thought is to say that it’s been a hard week, but that doesn’t seem like enough, so she starts thinking about the whole month, but that’s not enough either. It’s been difficult since they first got here, but not just that. There’s only one reasonable way to put this. “...since however long we’ve known each other.”
He nods again. “Come on, Lys.”
“Be careful,” Alyssa says to Leona before she turns back towards the road. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.”
“I don’t blame you for a thing,” Leona tells her honestly.
Once the two of them have gone, Leona climbs back into the Bridgette. She knocks on the bridge steps. “They’re gone.”
Marie opens the hatch, and crawls out. “I’m kind of surprised that he didn’t come here to check on his engine, or something.”
Leona shrugs. “The teleporter wasn’t necessary. Mateo is four and a half billion years in the past, there’s not exactly a sense of urgency.” She removes the floor plans from her bag, and unrolls them on one of the seats. They’re crude drawings based on what they were able to gather while they were down there for a brief time, but not official, and absolutely not to scale.
“Regular paper; old school,” Marie muses.
“Computers can be hacked. I’ll burn these pages.” She points at the plans as she’s discussing them. “Okay, the Bridgette reported still having trace amounts of chlorine in its systems, which most likely means that Mateo and Alyssa came up in one of the pools. Technically, two of them are big enough to hold this thing, but I’m guessing they appeared in the Olympic-size one. That’s right here. If we appear in the same one, Alyssa will probably have already been sent to the Mariana Trench. Well, the trench won’t exist yet, but...I don’t know how Danica does it, but the point is that the past version of our sub will be out of our way. If it is there, we’ll either be floating right next to it, or we’ll end up over here. It’s smaller, but still large enough to accommodate this whole thing. ”
“Okay, and where do I want to go?”
“Energy generation chamber. I think they called it The Cave. It’s made of partially naturally walling, because of how the vibrations work. Ramses explained this before. A long-ass tube runs from the Constant, all the way down near the core of the planet, and generates energy from the gravitational differences between the bottom of the tube and the top. Due to the magnetic field, if you’re in that room, the artificial intelligence that runs the facility won’t be able to detect your presence. If you can teleport there on the sly, and do it immediately upon our arrival in the past, I believe that the system will just think the temporal energy you use to do it is just residual energy from that arrival. Does that make sense?”
“You want the time travel to mask my jump to the energy room, and then you want me to hide in there so the AI can’t see me. Got it.”
“Then what do I do?”
Leona sighs. “Danica Matic is powerful because of how old she is, but back then, she won’t be that old. She’ll really just be another person, without access to all that knowledge. So what I want you to do is be your badass self...eventually.”
“Eventually, like how long?”
Leona removes a box of this reality’s version of meal bars from her bag. “These will last a normal person a month. Due to Ramses’ upgrades, you should be able to stretch them out to about a year. So all you have to do is hide in there somewhere for that long, and then you can come out after their guard is down.”
“See, that’s my problem,” Marie says. “You talked about how little power Danica will have back then, but Bhulan is a different story. Plus, we think Dalton was there...”
“I don’t think Dalton will be there yet,” Leona says. “I think he shows up later. His is not an important religion, suggesting marginal connection to the original ones.”
“Okay,” Marie says.
“I can’t promise that we’ll win, or that things will turn out okay. You might get caught immediately. But I don’t think you’re going to get hurt, or I wouldn’t send you in. These are not our enemies, they’re just...being dicks right now.”
“I understand. Let’s do it.”
“Okay.” Leona goes over to the controls, and commands the Bridgette to roll itself into the lake, and submerge. They start to float around, looking for signs of temporal energy, or anything of note. They don’t know exactly where to go, so they’re trying everything. Whatever portal first sent Mateo and Alyssa into the past was probably not placed there on purpose, making it a bug of sorts. It’s not just a bug, but something called a heisenbug, which is one that is unreliable to reproduce. The conditions that led to it happening the first time may no longer be present, or maybe it was just a one time thing, and the portal has since closed. It would require tons of temporal energy, and that may be all there was left.
A few hours later, they have scoured the whole bottom of the lake, and investigated every nook and cranny. Nothing has happened. No portals, no spikes in temporal energy. They don’t want to give up, so they decide to try again from the beginning. Leona commands the Bridgette to surface, and that’s when everything changes. They’re no longer in the lake, but the middle of outer space.
“Should I teleport now?” Marie asks as they’re staring at the stars below them.
“No, definitely not.”

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 25, 2398

Well, that happened. Curtis was gone, as well as Cheyenne, and they left them using a tactic that no one else ever thought to try. Ramses asked Leona whether The Officiant ever gave her the means to contact her again through a divorce declaration, and she had to say that she didn’t. Perhaps it’s something that the Officiant instituted sometime after their wedding according to her own personal timeline, or she’s cognizant of every couple’s ultimate fate, so she only gives the secret words to the ones she knows will need them later. The question is whether Leona could potentially use this tactic to summon one of the few people they know without suppressed time powers, and if she did, would she and Mateo have to go through with the divorce just for the attempt? Cheyenne had to give up a favor to convince the Officiant to spirit them away, so if Leona doesn’t have anything to offer, it might not work regardless.
Right now, Leona is spinning her wedding ring around her finger. She wants to leave for the Oort Cloud, but it’s not time yet. It could take a really long time to find that proverbial nonmagnetic needle in a haystack. She still has commitments and responsibilities down here on Earth. First and foremost is the reintegration of one Bhulan Cargill into her real body. They have been communicating with her through the Insulator of Life interface, and she says she’s ready for the procedure, but that she still won’t answer any of their questions. Ramses is hooking her up to the virtual construct, so they can have a conversation in private. Erlendr’s consciousness has been restricted to a separate partition, so he doesn’t hear what they have to say.
“Hi,” Leona begins.
“Hello,” Bhulan replies politely.
“We don’t know each other very well. You don’t know any of these people very well, do you?”
Bhulan tilts her chin. “I know you well based on what I have been able to see with my time power, but I assume that’s not what you mean. No, we have not interacted much. It is in my nature to stay out of people’s personal lives.”
“Right, you meddle with the timeline all you want, but as long as you don’t talk to anybody, it’s like they’re not real people, so you don’t have to catch feelings.”
Bhulan takes a beat, but ends up confirming the truth with a, “yes.”
The construct is more elaborate than it was when Ramses first created it. He didn’t have time to program too many details back then, but he has since made a nice little fake house for her in the middle of a vast field of daisies, which are her favorite. They’re on the front porch right now. Leona sits down on the swinging bench. “This is a nice place you got here.”
“Yes, I appreciate it.”
“Have you seen where Erlendr is living?”
“I got a quick look.”
Leona nods. It’s based on the Level Two environment in Tamerlane Pryce’s afterlife simulation. You know him, right?”
Bhulan turns away to avoid betraying any telltale microexpressions.
Leona smirks and nods, because that is a macroexpression. “Level Two Static; the Reds. They’re trapped in a dark room. No windows, no light beyond the faint reddish glow that comes from nowhere, and everywhere. There’s not even a door; there doesn’t need to be, because it’s not real.” She nods again, and breathes in the false fresh air. “Kind of like this. It’s just an illusion; electrical signals being swirled around in a particular pattern. Some say that that’s all life is. We’re a brain in a vat, and everything we see is what we come up within our own minds.”
“What are you getting at?” Bhulan asks.
Leona takes a second. “Well, you’re not a brain in a vat, are you? You’re a bit of code inside of a glass insulator, and it doesn’t matter what you come up with in your mind, because you’re not in charge of your reality.” Now she gets all serious. “I am. I can put you in that fucking room with Erlendr, or I can put you in a separate one. I can turn these daisies into knives. I can remove all your fingers. I can do whatever the hell I want, and you won’t be able to do a goddamn thing about it! I am the angry one. If you wanted patience and compassion, you should have protected my husband!” She takes a moment to recapture her breath, and composure. “Fortunately, as far as we know, he’s not a lost cause, and you have a chance to redeem yourself, but Miss Cargill, you only have one chance. If you don’t give me some real information about where he is, and how I can get him back, I swear to god, I’m gonna program a Nietzschean abyss, and throw you over the edge. You’ll never stop falling, you’ll never get your body back—I’ll cremate it myself—and I won’t let anyone come save you.”
Bhulan turns to face her now, but turns away just as quickly. “You may have to get that abyss ready, because you’re not going to like my answer.”
“I don’t have to like the answer if it’s the truth.”
She sighs. “We don’t know.”
“Excuse me?”
“We don’t know where he is. Danica went into a room with him. It’s the same one that we use to erase people’s memories. You’ve been there, you just don’t remember. I don’t think she was going to do anything to him; she just wanted to talk. She needed to explain that he couldn’t ever leave, but...then we heard a scream. It didn’t sound like either of their voices—”
“Was it the Time Shriek?” Leona interrupts.
“No, it definitely wasn’t that, but it had the same level of energy attached to it. By the time we got through the door, Mateo was gone, and Danica was the one with lost memories. That room, Leona, it’s foolproof. One door, no windows, built of temporal containment materials. He could not have teleported or time traveled out. Nothing in the universe explains how he escaped.”
“Nothing in this universe, maybe.”
Bhulan winces. “You’re right, we don’t know much about all that, so we wouldn’t be able to protect ourselves against it. We’re aware that other universes exist, but we are quite ignorant of what else is out there, so...yeah, I guess that’s the best explanation.”
“Okay. I’ll tell Ramses to transfer you out, and then you can go wherever you want. Or you can stay. People seem to not realize that that is an option.”
“Thank you, and I’m sorry.”
“Lying is annoying more than anything. Just remember that when you start your next chapter. It makes everything worse, for everyone, including your damn self.”
“What will you do? How will you find him?”
“Trust is earned. You’ll have to prove yourself worthy of knowing our secrets. Goodbye, Bhulan.”

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 24, 2398

Curtis found himself trapped in the containment chamber in the lab. Ramses made sure this was the case via the security cameras, but he didn’t allow anyone to go down there right away. It was especially difficult to keep Cheyenne from trying, but they kept her at bay, and it’s not like she could have snuck in. Ramses has made some decisions for this facility that he didn’t for the last one. He and Leona have unfettered access to every area at all times. If they would like to turn other areas off and on for other people, they can do that, but there’s no longer a free-for-all option. There is no reason for anyone else to be able to get into the testing room at all unless there is something very specific they need to be a part of, and the two leaders approve.
They leave Curtis in his cell for hours. No food, no water, no bathroom break. He spends his first few minutes in there trying to escape, but not desperately or frantically. If you ever find yourself in a locked room, it is an unreasonable reaction to sit there and not at least look for a weakness somewhere. It’s also unreasonable to keep pounding your head against the wall when it’s clearly not going to work. So he just sits down on the floor, and leans his back against the door. They would have put a cot, and maybe a bucket, in there if they knew this was going to happen, but it wasn’t technically designed as a cell. At least that wasn’t the original or primary intention.
Once Curtis had stewed for long enough, Ramses let Marie into the room to begin the interrogation. He didn’t give them anything. He didn’t apologize, or explain himself, or even tell her to screw off. He didn’t say a single word to them. Ramses confirmed that there were now two separate consciousnesses in his brain, having already set the chamber up to gather such data. The reigning theory is that he and Aquila are, or were, in cahoots, and he was trying to prevent her from giving away certain information about their dealings together. Best guess, they’re part of a larger conspiracy, which would likely also involve Danica Matic, Tamerlane Pryce, Dalton Hawke, and Bhulan Cargill. He’s not giving them anything, so it’s time for a new tactic.
It’s Cheyenne's turn, and no one has a problem with that. He appears to have betrayed her just as much as them; possibly more so, because of the commitment he deliberately made to her. She looks anxious, though, so Leona decides to stay by her side. She has agreed to get as much information out of him as she can for the team’s benefit, but she may fail at that, instead focusing on her personal relationship with him, and trying to get answers for that. Again, that’s okay. She doesn’t owe them anything. “You owe me an explanation,” she tells him. She’s been standing outside of the chamber for a few minutes now, but he hasn’t even noticed yet.
He stands up, and places his palms against the glass. “I’m sorry. This has nothing to do with you...with us.”
“Yes, it does.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he insists.
“You made a choice. You pulled another human being’s mind into your head, and you didn’t tell me you were going to do that, or why. We’re supposed to be a team, which means that you lied to me. I don’t care what you lied about, or how you justify it in your own headcanon, it’s still a lie.”
He doesn’t respond.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“I’m your husband.”
“How can I know that? You’re not acting like him, and we live in a universe with duplicates, alternates, illusionists, and God knows what else.”
“I’m him. I know it.”
“This is why you refused to take a simpatico test, because it would show that you and I have been apart from each other longer than you told me.”
He doesn’t respond again.
“For someone who hasn’t betrayed me, you sure are being deafeningly quiet.”
“I can’t tell you everything, not yet.” He can see that he’s losing her. “But I will. I promise, everything will be revealed in due time. We’re just...not ready.”
“Not ready for what?”
Time. Time is not ready. Certain things have to happen first, it’s hard to explain. We must make arrangements.”
“Who the hell is we?” Cheyenne questions.
Curtis scowls, and looks up at the nearest camera. “I think you know who.”
She shakes her head, and turns it towards Leona. “Could you give us just a little space? Once Leona steps away, she continues with Curtis. “I don’t care about any of that, or those people. I just want to know who I married, and what he was doing for the X amount of years he was wandering alone in one of the old—” She stops herself, and looks up at the camera too. She almost gave away one of her own secrets. Maybe she can’t be so mad at him when she’s keeping something so important from the people who took her in, and never pushed her for answers.
“I haven’t been gone that long, and I’m not really one of them, per se. I’ve just been sworn to secrecy. These people can’t know. If we were alone, that would be one thing, but it’s in everyone’s best interests if the timeline plays out as its meant to.”
“Okay, Kang the Conqueror,” she mocks.
He rolls his eyes. “It’s a little like that, yeah.”
She starts to tear up as she pulls a tightly folded piece of paper from her pocket.
“What is that?” he asks.
She unfolds the paper, and holds it up between them. “I, Cheyenne Duvall, hereby remove—oh.” She stops herself to literally remove her wedding ring from her finger, which she never let the rest of the team see until today.
“What are you doing?” he presses.
“Yeah, what is this?” Leona concurs.
Cheyenne decides to begin again. “I, Cheyenne Duvall, hereby remove this token of marriage from my person to symbolize my intention to begin the proceedings for the dissolution of said marriage to Curtis Duvall. On this day, the 24th of November, 2398—according to local timekeeping standards in the parallel reality colloquially known as The Third Rail—I formally request audience with The Officiant.”
The Officiant’s office appears out of nowhere. The Officiant herself steps through the door, and frowns. “Tell me your grievances.”
“No grievances. Just get the two of us out of here, and I’ll owe you a favor.”
“A favor,” the Officiant echoes, “from you?”
“Yes, anything you want,” Cheyenne confirms.
The Officiant glances over at Leona. “Sorry to disrupt whatever it is you’re doing, but I can’t pass up this opportunity.” They all three disappear, as does the office.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 23, 2398

The outreach team turned northward with Aquila, and headed for Costa Rica to rendezvous with an extraction team. While they were on their way, Alyssa came to them in the Bridgette to pick up Leona, Marie, and Aquila. Marie could see the frustration in the eyes of the three other members of her SD6 teammates. They’re being left out of the real mission again, and it’s getting to them. That could be something that she has to deal with down the road. Her loyalties are split. That is a known issue for all SD6 employees.
They’re back in Kansas City now, with all eyes on Aquila to make sure she doesn’t try to escape them again. She seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble to make contact, so an outsider might think that she wouldn’t do that, but it’s actually what worries them the most. Why didn’t she just call them on the phone? “I don’t own a phone,” she jokes.
“Sit down,” Marie orders.
“This is a big table for the three of us,” Aquila muses. “Where did Leona run off to? She’s the only one I really need to talk to about this.”
“It’s not just for us.”
They’re in the conference room on the ground level of the lab, which was originally designed to be cut in half. Visitors were meant to come in from the outside, and discuss the pandemic without going through quarantine. The other half was for people working with the pathogen downstairs, who didn’t want to spend time coming out of quarantine. The hermetic seal has been broken, because they currently have no use for it. Now there’s just one big table that everyone can sit around. Ramses comes in first, tapping away at his tablet, surely working on another one of his Reed Richards inventions that won’t see the light of day beyond these walls. Behind him are Winona and Kivi, followed by Vearden and Arcadia. Cheyenne is next, carefully holding the Insulator of Life, which will allow them to interface with the real Bhulan trapped inside with no body to go to.
As they’re finding their seats, Leona returns. A part of her is smiling, but she’s not showing it. Aquila is going to talk, whether she wants to or not. They’re finally going to get some real answers, instead of just last second messages before someone loses their memory, or brief interactions with someone before they run away. Curtis walks in last, and sits directly across from her, so they can begin. He has an odd look on his face, and he will not turn away from Aquila. It’s like he’s more invested in this than anyone, but that can’t be. He doesn’t have anything to do with this.
Ramses stops what he’s doing, and hooks the Insulator up to a monitor. Bhulan appears on it, sitting at a virtual desk, as if merely conferencing in from the San Francisco office. Aquila grimaces at her. “Awkward.”
Ramses sits at the head, places his elbows on the table, and interlocks his fingers. He glances over at Leona, who gives him a nod. “Where is Mateo Matic; my best friend, Leona’s husband, and your brother?”
“I know who you’re talking about. What is this, a deposition? You don’t have to be so formal, do you?” Aquila questions.
“Unclear,” Ramses replies. “You dodged the question to crack a joke, so...you’re sure acting like a defendant.”
“I didn’t hurt him. I didn’t do anything to him. I know how you get him back.”
“I didn’t ask how we get him back; I asked where he was. You avoid the question one more time, and there will be consequences.”
“What kind of consequences could you possibly—”
Marie reaches over with the Livewire, and taps Aquila on the head. It gives her a shock, but it’s not sending an electrical charge into her. It’s trying to pull her mind into it. She didn’t leave it there long enough to do lasting damage, and that’s what hurts. It would be like poking someone with a needle several times, instead of just stabbing them once, and drawing blood the right way.
“Answer the question,” Ramses demands. “I won’t ask it again.”
Aquila literally bites her bottom lip, desperately wanting to ask them where they get off torturing people, but recognizing that she’s not in a position to push these people. They want their friend back, and that has melted the ethical boundaries that would normally prevent them from taking things this far. He’s in a stasis capsule located in Phoenix 15-236P7 Marathon-Algae-Temple.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Alyssa asks, very confused.
“There could be thousands of objects in that bubble,” Leona complains.
“If you get close enough, you’ll see him,” Aquila explains.
“Can someone tell us what Phoenix fifteen-whatever is?” Vearden asks. He looks over at Arcadia, who shrugs, because she doesn’t know either.
“There are trillions of celestial objects in the Oort Cloud,” Leona begins. “Even in the main sequence, it will be centuries before we catalog and track them all. For now, the best we can do is estimate regions of space based on direction and distance. Phoenix is the constellation where you wanna look for your target. It’s 15,236.7 astronomical units away. He’s somewhere in there, or at least he was...four billion years ago. There’s no telling where he is now. Like I said, we can’t track them. We don’t have the data.”
“No, that is where he is now,” Aquila counters. “It’s stationary. All you have to do is look for a planetesimal in that bubble that doesn’t move.”
“Well, that would make it easier, but still not easy,” Leona says.
“Your ship can do it.” Aquila looks over at Ramses. “The AI you stole from The Constant can do it.”
Whatever, Ramses doesn’t feel any shame about that. “Well, we’ll look there. In the meantime, we have some more questions.”
“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Aquila begins. “I’ve decided to tell you everything. I’m not supposed to...I’m not allowed to...but no one can stop me, right?” She shoots arrows at Curtis.
Curtis stares back for a moment, then looks over at Cheyenne. He stays on her for an even shorter amount of time before turning towards Arcadia and Vearden. “Take care of your daughter. She’s more important than you ever hoped to be.” He jumps up on the table, and dives towards Marie. He takes the Livewire from her, and jams it against Aquila’s—Bhulan’s—head. He doesn’t hold onto the insulation, though. His hand is touching the wire, so he’s being affected by it too. No one can pull him off of her, or they’ll be shocked by it just as much. In seconds, it’s over. They both fall onto the floor, but Curtis manages to get up, while Aquila looks dead.
“What did you do?” Cheyenne asks, horrified and confused.
“I can’t let her talk, I’m sorry.” Curtis looks at the crowd. “To all of you.” He looks out the window, and teleports away, but he doesn’t get as far as he thought he would.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 22, 2398

Marie called it in, and confirmed her suspicions. A spy satellite feed showed that a small speedboat-like watercraft was moving at top speed from the shores of Panama, while a fleet of larger ships were in pursuit. They could have overcome it at pretty much any time. There must be a reason that they want to maintain distance. The most likely explanation is that there is something dangerous on board, like a bomb, or a deadly chemical. Leona and Marie don’t want to teleport there if they don’t have to. According to Ramses’ research, their ability to metabolize the Bermuda Triangle water is diminishing. If they keep using it to reactivate their powers, it eventually won’t work anymore. Theoretically, they can’t overdose on the stuff, but also theoretically, they can. It’s here in case of an emergency, though, if the pursuing ships change tactics, or if either party reacts to their arrival. To be safe, by the time they make their interception, the SD6 team will put on their hazmat suits, just in case that’s what the problem is.
It took the team a long time, but they’re here now. They have the boats in their sights, and nothing has changed from the last satellite view that they saw. The pursuing ships are still 900 meters from the speedboat. It’s been on the water for so long, it has to be running out of power. It was going all night, so it had to rely on its battery reserves, and those things are not designed for overnight trips. The driver is running out of power, and it will probably happen soon. When it does, that could be enough to cause the ships to make bolder moves. The team has to get to it now, and figure this out. They don’t know if they’re target is good or bad, dangerous or harmless, so they’re not going to take any chances. Leona and Marie have their immortality water boosters inside their hazmat suits, ready to take the other three members of the team with them, plus the target, if necessary. Then again, they’re still not close enough to know if there even is only one person on the vessel. It’s the only one they can track using Ramses’ scanner, but that doesn’t mean that person is alone.
Once the team breaks the 900-meter radius, that’s when the ships start to change direction. They all move at the same time. “Oh, no,” Leona laments. “They’re coming in to attack us. Get your auto-injector ready.”
“No,” Marie says with a shake of her head. “That’s not what they’re doing. They’re leaving.” She’s right. They’re not getting into attack formation. They’re turning. It’s going to take them a long time at their sizes, going at their speeds, but they’re definitely turning away. From what, them? That is even weirder. What are they so afraid of? Why did they spend all this time and effort going after this little boat, only to bail when a three crew-sized tactical amphibious vessel shows up? Surely they have their own satellites, and would have seen them coming from literally miles away.
They’re not going to spend too much time dwelling on it. They get closer to the speedboat, which is being maneuvered into parallel position. Once they’re tied together, the hatch from the cabin opens. Bhulan Cargill climbs out of it, except it’s not Bhulan. It’s Mateo’s once-sister, Aquila in Bhulan’s body. “Why are you wearing those things?”
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Leona says. “This whole mission has been bizarre. Why were they coming after you, and why are they giving up now?”
Aquila looks back at the fleet. “Oh, they weren’t coming after me. Those are my escort ships. They were making sure no one attacked. We need to talk...about Mateo.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 21, 2398

In the main sequence, the concept of international waters was determined by a bunch of people a long time ago who talked about it for a long time, and used math to make clear and mostly unequivocal calculations. In The Third Rail, things went a little bit differently. For much of human history, if one could see land using a normal handheld spyglass, they were floating within territorial waters, and subject to that state’s laws and customs. When two or more states could be viewed from the same point, those states had to come to some kind of agreement, not subject to any outsider’s opinion or authority on the matter. World War I in the 1850s predominantly concerned how boundaries were divided, and who was entitled to what land resources. Each dispute inspired two more fronts to pop up elsewhere, and settle their own grievances. Pretty soon, the whole planet was on fire. The end of The Terrible War—as it was known colloquially, especially at the time—was when all of the major disagreements had been resolved. It was also when a new definition of transboundary waters was established. Basically, if you could defend it with a naval or coastal force, you could have it.
Since then, smaller wars have been fought over further discord, but they were mostly not tied together, and World War II didn’t begin for another 140 years, which finalized a lot of the lingering border ambiguity through treaties and trade agreements. Much of World War III in the 2040s involved starting the argument over again, but this time regarding airspace, as that was the innovation at the time. These laws have not technically changed over the centuries, but the boundaries have naturally become standardized for the majority of nations. It is strikingly similar to the figure used in the main sequence. There, it’s 370 kilometers. Here, it’s 350 kilometers. Unless you’re talking about Panama, where it’s closer to 900 kilometers.
Jamaica, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador do not have international waters to speak of. They only have a small sliver of internal waters, which essentially come down to how far out a small fishing boat can go for a day of work, and still make it back to shore by nightfall. The wars, the peace negotiations, and the trade policies that led to this interesting situation are impossible to explain on a single page, but the details are irrelevant. Marie, Leona, and their SD6 team need to get into Panama, but none of those other countries listed is willing to host them. The closest they can get is a small island chain straddling the equator called Xeros. Overlaying the correspondence map that Leona created onto this reality’s map makes it obvious that in the main sequence, they’re called the Galápagos Islands. There, they were named for the tortoises that call it home. Here, they’re named for the fact that nothing lives here. The fauna, and much of the flora, was decimated so long ago that the history books don’t remember who was responsible, but they did such a good job of it that these are mostly just made of rocks, sand, and a few shrubs here and there. Tourism does not exist. At all. So at least they have some privacy while the diplo team gets their diplomacy on.
“Hey. Hey look.” Doric has been playing games on his tablet in between scanner updates. “I was right. The dot is definitely in the water now, and closer than last time.”
Marie takes it from him. She looks out over the water, even though the dot is still hundreds of kilometers away. “This looks like an escape pattern. Our target is trying to get out of Panama. Piss and gear up. We’re going in.”

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 20, 2398

Everything worked perfectly yesterday. Leona injected herself with a boost of temporal energy, which allowed her to transport herself and Alyssa out of the Mariana Trench, and back to the lab. There, Ramses provided her with a can of Bermuda Triangle water, which she poured into the engine of the Bridgette. She then commanded the whole vessel to make a jump to the surface of the ocean, and from there, she was able to fly back to Kansas City. It was a circuitous way of getting the job done, but it worked, and now she’s here, so she can focus on getting her husband back yet again. After all of this, she was exhausted, and she knows her body and mind well enough to know their limits. She went to sleep, and didn’t wake up until the next morning.
Leona generates a map over the holotable. This facility was originally equipped with a 3D scanner that would allow medical professionals to examine a patient infected with whatever disease they’re studying. That scanner is still in the infirmary they set aside for themselves, and this one is the backup, which the government team who retrofitted this place modified to be a regular computer display. “Vulcan Point. It’s an island inside of a crater lake on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean. It’s not the only land mass that’s like this, but where we’re from, it’s the most famous. It’s very small, you could maybe build two houses next to each other there, or a single home of decent size. No one has, it’s completely undeveloped, and protected as a wildlife refuge.”
Curtis walks into the room. “Oh, hey, Leona, you’re awake. Can we talk?”
“I’m in the middle of something right now,” she replies.
“Just...do you remember me? Do you remember us?”
“Yes. You and a version of me were partners in more ways than one for three years before she met Horace Reaver in a very old timeline, but I try not to think too much about that reality, because I didn’t ask for those memories to be blended into my brain, and I feel very distant from them.”
“Okay.” Curtis seems to be in a very vulnerable place right now, but taking care of his mental state is not their priority at the moment. It’s certainly not hers.
“Anyway. These are the most recent satellite images of Vulcan Point Island. Like I said, it’s a refuge, so they don’t allow tours, which is why there’s no activity. No boats, no planes, no hiking trails. If we want to go there, we’ll have to teleport, and probably at night, because it may be monitored. If it’s as important as I believe, it may even have some high level deterrence, like Palmeria does.”
“Didn’t Alyssa say that we’re supposed to go there last, like after all the other errors have been found?” Ramses asks.
“That’s what Danica told her, which means that’s what she wants us to do, and I’m not inclined to follow her rules. If she truly wants me to do that, then she can show her face, and tell us in person.”
Ramses stares at her, and doesn’t speak, but Leona can tell that he has more.
“What, Ram?”
“In any movie, when the bad guy gives the good guy a choice of doing it the way he normally would, or going against his instincts, and following the bad guy’s directions, the good guy chooses his instincts, and it always backfires. Leona, it backfires every time. Danica may be expecting you to skip straight to Vulcan Point, knowing full well that one of the errors we find elsewhere would have been helpful in our pursuit of that final destination.”
“This isn’t a movie,” Leona reasons.
“Well, with the Superintendent in the mix, it kind of is. Our lives follow TV tropes, and the most genre savvy amongst us are the ones who do well. That’s why you keep winning, Leona, because you understand how your opponent thinks. Don’t forget that now. Don’t get emotional.”
Leona wants to get mad at Ramses for calling her emotional, like he’s a 1950s boss who can’t recognize the potential in his secretary, but that would be frustratingly ironic. She can’t give in. She just sighs, and looks away.
“I don’t remember saying what I said,” Alyssa begins to break the silence. “But you relayed it to me. I was clearly about to say that Vulcan Point was not going to lead us to Mateo, and I evidently had already said that he would never be coming back. Something must have convinced me of that.”
Leona nods, acknowledging Alyssa’s words, but not quite agreeing with them. “I think Vulcan Point leads us to Danica, and Danica knows when and where Mateo is.” She swipes the map away, and replaces it with the map that’s showing the last known location of the errors as plotted by the brain scanner on the AOC. “She is in this reality. She’s one of these dots. And if she doesn’t want us to go to Vulcan Point, then that’s exactly where we should go.”
“She may not be one of the dots,” Ramses points out. “Alyssa is not a dot, because my scanner doesn’t detect people with powers, just people who have a weird relationship with time, which she hasn’t really experienced yet.”
“Danica definitely has a weird relationship with time,” Leona argues. “She’s billions of years old.”
“I know, but Alyssa was the only person on the Bridgette, wasn’t she? This means that my scanner wasn’t picking up a real error. It just thought there was an error, because of the tech that was installed on the bridge. Surely Danica has a way to shield herself from being seen.”
“Then build another scanner,” Leona suggests. “Build one that detects temporal energy instead, or something like that.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” Ramses tells her. “That’s why I’ve been studying Curtis’ active abilities. It’s...not going well. So far,” he adds, not wanting to plunge her deeper into depression. What he doesn’t do is reiterate the fact that Danica may still be able to shield herself from that. Enemy or no, she’s one of the most powerful people they have faced, if only due to her age. No one else comes close, not even all the Prestons combined.
“I’m fine,” Curtis says, jumping back into the conversation. “I’ve rested enough, so I can get back into the machine.”
“Are you sure?” Ramses asks.
“Put me in, coach.”
Ramses starts running more tests on Curtis’ presumed unique ability to maintain his powers in this reality. Leona, meanwhile, goes back to her room. It was a quarantine cell, so there’s not much here, but it’s good enough. She doesn’t spend much time there before she gets an idea. She has combat experience, and she isn’t doing much good in the lab. They would all probably be better off if she left, and joined Marie out in the field.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: November 19, 2398

Leona pulls the gear off of her head. “What do you mean, Mateo is never coming back? Where is he?”
Alyssa is discernibly frustrated that she had to say anything, but if she wants this to move along, she can’t ignore Leona’s questions completely. “He stayed in the past. Danica made him. She said it was too dangerous to erase his mind a second time.”
“How far in the past were you?” Leona presses.
“There’s no time for these questions,” Alyssa argues. “Every minute we spend down here is another day up top.”
Leona shakes her head, and starts to pace. “No point in time makes any sense for you two to randomly jump back to, however you did it. If you were with Danica, the only non-random point in time would be when The Constant was first built, which was four and a half billion years ago. But that can’t be right. If a minute here is a day of realtime, that means you have observed over three million years. Are you three million years old?”
“Time wasn’t always moving at this speed. It used to be a lot faster.” Alyssa is growing very impatient. “You weakened the bubble just by coming here, but we still aren’t matched with realtime.”
“You’re just trying to avoid telling me what happened with Danica in the past.”
“No. Danica wanted to avoid that, so she put my memory on a timebomb, and she’s forcing you to either learn her secrets, and lose a lot of time with the rest of the team, or cut your losses, and pop the bubble for good.”
“Argh!” Leona looks around for clues to overcome the dilemma, like she’s just in a simple escape room. If there’s a solution, she can’t see it, and if she really is losing time, that could cause a whole lot of problems for their friends. “How do I break the bubble?”
“That box on the console that doesn’t belong. It tears tiny holes in the bubble, and sends out the distress signal that is probably what brought you here. If you can program it to open a hole permanently, the bubble will burst. At least that’s what she said.”
Leona goes down to the bridge, and inspects the box that she’s talking about. The first thing she has to do is figure out how to open it. She slides her fingers around the edges and the corners, but she doesn’t feel a release. It’s not made of adamantium, though. She takes out her knife, and jams it into the seam, then she pries the top open to reveal the guts of the machine inside. She scans the inner workings a little before understanding what she needs to do. Flip this switch to temporarily cut power to the oscillator. Pull the wire, and reattach it to the contact permanently. Reset the power. Boom. Done.
They watch through the viewport as the translucent bubble slides away like rainfall on a windshield. “I have time to tell you one thing,” Alyssa begins. “What you’re looking for is on Vulcan Point, but you’ll want to go there last. And it’s gonna take you longer than you think. You’ll be really tired by the end of the maze. But before you get any ideas, that’s not where Ma...” She trails off, and goes to la-la land.
This is what happened to Mateo just before he lost his memories in Lebanon. The trigger for him is hypothesized to have been the filling of Danica Lake. In this case, it was the bursting of the time bubble. This seems to be different, however, because he passed out—and there she goes, right to the floor. Damn, Leona could have caught her.
Leona drags the sleeping Alyssa up to the main loft, and lays her on the bed. Then she returns to the bridge, and tries to make contact with the team on the AOC. They don’t respond, but she gets a time announcement back, informing her that it’s November 19, 2398 at 15:05. A minute later, the announcement says that it’s 15:06, which means that the bubble is indeed down, and the urgency is over, as long as her friends aren’t in any danger. She uses their ship as a relay point, and manages to get a hold of Ramses. He’s in the lab with Cheyenne and—funny enough—Curtis Duvall. She hasn’t seen that guy in forever. She tells Ramses that she’s still at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and just needs to figure out how to surface.
She postulates that there were two bubbles around the vessel. One altered the rate of time, and the other just protects The Bridgette from the pressure of the ocean above them. In submarine mode, it can dive deeper than its predecessor, The Olimpia, but not this deep. This is Constant magic at work, and she can’t be sure that it will persist through an attempt to rise back up to their safe depth. This little box was only designed to handle the time bubble, so the force field must be somewhere else. The most likely location is down in engineering. In the Olimpia, that could be found in the back. It was a tight space, but one could stand. Here, the ceiling is 75 centimeters up, making it a crawl space, and she has to get there by opening the steps that lead to the fuselage like a cellar door. Ramses sacrificed comfort for more beds to sleep passengers.
“Hello?” Leona can hear as she’s still working on the engine. She figured out right away that the pressure field will last as long as they don’t try to go anywhere. If they attempt to surface, it will collapse before they have enough time to go all the way up. It’s almost like it was designed that way. The issue is that she is this close to running out of power. A time bubble that can last billions of years would have taken enormous amounts of temporal energy. Not even the tanks on the Bridgette could store enough after being concentrated from immortality water. Yet it all runs out today; not a day too soon? Either Danica is trying to kill them in the most roundabout way, or there’s a way out of this that Leona hasn’t thought of.
Leona slides on her ass back towards the bridge. “I’m down here!”
Alyssa gets on her stomach, and sticks her head over the edge like a reverse prairie dog. “Is everything okay?”
“I don’t suppose you have any idea how we’re supposed to get out of here without the pressure of the ocean crushing us to death?”
“Where are we?”
“What is the last thing you remember?” Leona asks.
“Mateo and I were diving to the bottom of Danica Lake, just in case there were any clues left down there.”
“Were there?”
“I don’t remember.” She takes a beat. “I found this in my pocket when I woke up, though.”
Leona slides farther up to get a better look at what Alyssa is dangling in front of her. It’s an auto-injector. “This is probably temporal energy, and probably enough for me to teleport us to the surface, but not enough to get the whole craft up there.”
“So we have to leave it here?”
“No,” Leona says. “We’ll get more in the Bermuda Triangle, and then come right back. I’m not losing another home.”