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Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: February 25, 2399

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Mangrove Rocket Three was heavily damaged in the explosion, for reasons they don’t understand. The whole point was that the self-destruct was supposed to go off upon their exit, so why would it begin before they were clear of the blast? They hadn’t even fully retracted the docking tunnel, and were not planning to leave until the last two members of their group had teleported safely on board. In response to the threat, the ship automatically entered reframe speeds, and traveled as far as it could in a few seconds. That placed them at only about four astronomical units from Phoenix Station, but the engines gave out after that, and took time to repair before they could get back on their way. They tried radioing Mateo and Ramses to see if they had escaped in the Avallo, but received no response.
Aldona has just made the necessary repairs using the automated systems. While she was working on that, Winona, Vearden, and Alyssa made sure that their prisoners were secure. None of them has given them any trouble yet, but there’s still time. They would all like to know what the hell is going on, but the briefing is going to have to wait. Getting the other two back—despite what Ramses did to Leona—is priority one right now. “Are we ready?” Alyssa asks.
“Just about,” Aldona answers. “The coolant is cycling. When it’s finished in a few minutes, we’ll be ready to go back.”
“Can’t we just go without the coolant?” Alyssa asks. “It’s not far.” She looks through the main viewport. “I can practically see the asteroid from here.”
“It’s too dangerous, and impossible now. The ship won’t budge until the process is done. It really won’t be long. When I said minutes, I meant minutes.”
Alyssa nods and looks at herself in the security mirror next to the captain’s seat. She gently runs her fingers along her cheeks.
Aldona notices this. “What happened to you?”
Alyssa frowns at her reflection, and doesn’t respond immediately. “I died.”
“Been there.”
Alyssa looks over at her. “I’m Alyssa.”
“I know. I’m Aldona.” She lances down at the computer when it beeps. The cycle is complete. “And I’m ready to take us back to that asteroid.”
Alyssa sits herself down in the captain’s seat, and not in any sort of playful way, but a real show of strength that she’s decided to start exhibiting since her near-death experience. “Then let’s go.”
“This is your pilot, Aldona Lanka,” she says into the intercom. “Prepare to enter reframe speeds. I know you all felt it yesterday, but the engine was not designed with short bursts in mind. Nor is it generally a good idea. We’ll be fine, but you’ll feel it again, and I imagine your adrenaline levels have dropped to normal since then. So I suggest you brace. Except you, Erlendr. You can get fucked.” She engages the engine.
She intentionally dropped down to 99 percent the speed of light to avoid taxing the engine, but those five minutes were still pretty hard on it. It works better when it can get in a groove. It’s not really practical to use something like this for interstellar distances. That’s what a teleporter would be for, but that’s sort of Ramses’ purview, and would take longer to engineer. It also requires injecting temporal energy into the machine. The reframe engine manipulates time as well, but it can use ambient temporal energy to function. It really only bends the laws of physics, rather than breaking them.
The initial explosions turned out to have only been an amuse-bouche. The real self-destruct vaporized the entirety of Phoenix Station, along with most of the asteroid. There is no way to know whether the Avallo managed to escape, or was taken out too. At their last attempt to reach out, their friends were still not responding.
“Mateo, Ramses, come in,” Alyssa tries.
“No, you have to tap this button. Here, there ya go. Go ahead.”
“Mateo, Ramses, anyone, please respond. This is Alyssa McIver of Mangrove Three. Mateo, are you there?”
“It’s Mangrove Rocket Three,” Aldona corrects. She starts to mutter when Alyssa gives her a look. “I’m just saying, Mangrove Three is the launch port.”
“Mateo, Ramses, please come in.”
Mangrove Rocket Three,” Mateo’s voice comes in through an unexpected speaker, “this is Captain Leona Matic. Please respond.
“Why is she acting like she called us first?”
“This is the laser array, not radio,” Aldona explains. “She didn’t get your message. It’s just that she’s spot us.” She opens the channel. “Captain Matic, we read you, five by five. Tell us where you are.”
We’re in the Avallo escape pod.” It still sounds like Mateo.
“Okay, now I know what I’m looking for.” Aldona mutes, then starts to work on tracking the pod. She gives Alyssa her own look. “There’s a problem, though. Only one person can fit in that pod. I don’t know how a version of Leona is there too, but you’re not fittin’ three people; I’ll tell ya that much. Ramses is...”
“ the Avallo,” Alyssa insists. “I don’t know why they’re not together, but he’s not dead. He worked really hard to bring me back to life, and his reward for that was not dying himself. Okay?”
“Okay,” Aldona replies, not really believing it.
Okay?” she reiterates.
“I said okay.”
“Okay.” She takes a beat. “Glad we’re on the same page. Get me to that pod.”
Ramses is not in the pod, nor is there any second person. It’s just Mateo and Leona sharing the former’s body. She is apparently the same Leona who is currently trying to wake up in the infirmary; Vearden looking after her. At some point, she’s going to be nearly killed, and end up being forced into Leona Reaver’s fated car crash way back in the 21st century in the main sequence. Then Ramses is going to reach back to that event using the Phoenix Station extraction mirror, and his last act before his death will be to transfer her consciousness to Mateo’s brain. He urged them to teleport up to the Avallo, which Leona did, though she went straight to the escape pod, and ejected it from the ship, knowing that it would take longer to launch the entire vessel. Ramses is dead, and unless they can find another extraction mirror, they’ll never see him again.
“Why didn’t you teleport him with you?” Alyssa demands to know.
“I’m sorry,” Leona replies. “We were in a vulnerable position...highly susceptible to suggestion. You remember when you first got back, I’m sure. He could have ordered us to slit our own throats, and we would have done it.”
“Yeah? Well maybe you should have.” She storms off.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: February 24, 2399

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When Aldona first declared Radifor a new and independent nation, a lot of people who were working on the Mangrove Seasteads left. They returned to their own countries to serve in other ways. There were no hostilities during this time, and it happened relatively quickly. Some people, however, chose to stay. The majority of them were from the U.S., which maintains one of the healthiest international relationships with Radifor. No one had to turn coat, though. A lot of them were contractors who did not work directly for their respective governments, so there were no legal issues with them staying. Now, fewer people are involved in the program, but enough are still working, especially on Mangrove One, where the special projects are being conducted. The other seasteads are smaller, only large enough to accommodate the one rocket each, but this one has a number of other vessels. One in particular is not much larger than the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Aldona retrofitted one of her normal rockets with a new reframe engine, but this one was specifically designed for it.
After some of Aldona’s loyalists worked overtime to put the final touches on The Avallo, Ramses used his remaining temporal energy to teleport directly onto the bridge. He then launched it into space alone, and headed towards the Phoenix Station without bothering to orbit first. He arrived a few hours ago, and already feels better. The Omega Gyroscope is definitely on Earth, and it’s definitely still limited in scope. His biological enhancements are healing him rapidly, and at this point, they have no reason to believe that he’ll die from this disease. They should not have to rescue him through the extraction mirror. Still, he’s remained in isolation on the Avallo, testing himself once per hour to see whether he’s still infected. So far, he is, but the sample line grows fainter each time. He should be ready soon to join the others without worrying about infecting anyone. For now, though he’s only meters away, he communicates remotely. “Have you found the bomb yet?”
“No, nothing,” Leona replies. “They’re probably only accessible from the exterior, if they’re accessible at all.”
“I could take a spacewalk,” he suggests.
Aldona hops over. “Do not do that. I did not put a vacuum suit in there.”
“Don’t need one, my nanites are working.”
“Your nanites are healing you from the virus,” Leona reminds him. “Don’t make them work any harder than they have to.”
“Then I’ll go out when it’s done.”
“Even once you test negative, your body may still be in recovery. Once the line disappears, wait another hour, and then teleport in,” Leona orders. “We have a plan to get all of our friends back without destroying the universe at the same time. You being here, and alive, is what allows us to do that. If you die, then we’ll have to put you back in rotation, and someone like Constance!Five may have to be brought back to life as well. We already have one terrible decision to make.”
“Okay, I understand,” Ramses says, but he’s feeling antsy, so he tests himself once more, even though it’s fifteen minutes early. No line, he’s cured. An hour later, he injects himself with a small dose of temporal energy, and teleports himself inside.
“Are you good?” Leona asks.
“I’m good. Where are we?”
“I was just about to ask a very important question that I should have thought to ask before.” She faces the mirror. “Avatar, what is to stop us from extracting and resurrecting anyone we want from the timeline? How do you control that?”
“Actually,” the avatar begins, “you can resurrect anyone you want, as long as they belong in the half of the room that we have designated for them. For instance, you could place Tarboda Hobson’s mind into Vearden Haywood’s body, but you can’t place him into Erlendr Preston’s, because they’re on opposite sides.”
“Okay, but why can’t I just resurrect all seven of my friends, and then just walk away?” Leona presses. “What exactly is enforcing the one to one ratio?”
“I understand. Once you resurrect a friend, their pod will remain locked until you resurrect an enemy. Once you do that, both pods will open, and you will have to deal with whatever the outcome of that is.”
“Hmm,” Leona says. “So it’s as we thought,” she says to Winona and Aldona. It’s settled. Only five people need to be saved, and the five people they don’t like won’t be impossible to deal with. Whoever set up this sick game probably did the math, and realized that Ramses would be fine, but did not foresee the Mateo loophole. Here’s hoping they don’t change the rules on them.
“You thought what?” Ramses asks.
“We can’t tell you,” Winona tells him.
Leona clears her throat. “Do I have to recite the magic words from the miniseries, or can we skip the performance?”
The avatar makes Alyssa’s face smile. “Just tell me who you want.”
“Vearden first,” Ramses interjects before Leona can speak. “He’s dead. They’re all dead. I found out just before I left. The virus is contained to them, though.”
Leona regards him soberly, then reprepares herself. “Bring back Vearden Haywood,” she commands of the mirror.
The image of the avatar disappears to be replaced with that of Vearden in his isolation room. There’s a second bed next to him where Ramses was kept briefly before he managed to escape. No one else is in the room. The IV pump goes up and down, up and down, until it quite nearly stops. Time has slowed to a snail’s pace. Leona rolls out the neural sponger that was being stored behind the mirror, and aims it at Vearden. She then activates it, and begins to absorb his consciousness, digitizing it at the same time.
In under a minute, his whole brain has been scanned, uploaded into a compressed allocation unit, then transferred to his new body in the cloning pod. Electricity surges through the artificial amniotic fluid, and shocks him to life, like something out of a Shelley novel. He opens his eyes, and looks through the glass in horror. He starts banging on it.
Ramses steps over, and calms him down with hand gestures. He speaks out loud too, but Vearden can’t seem to hear him through the hatch. “Hurry up,” he requests of Leona. “This is traumatic for them.”
“Show me Senator Morton,” Leona says quickly.
Vearden’s old body disappears. They’re now watching Past!Winona raise her gun up to shoot Morton in the head. Present!Winona flinches, uncomfortable with seeing herself like this. Remembering the things she’s done is different than watching it happen, especially in such high quality, at an angle that would be impossible to get without being noticed if this were anything short of a magic mirror. Past!Winona’s movements slow down as well, but her finger has already begun to squeeze the trigger. Leona reactivates the sponger, and transfers his mind too. Once his cloned body is ready, both doors open, letting the two of them spill out onto the floor. Ramses catches Vearden while Winona hops over to tend to Morton.
They’re both confused, but moreso Morton, who doesn’t know much about this stuff, and has no frame of reference for how he’s here now. Unless there is a secret passage to another section of this facility, they have looked all over, and the only things they’ve found are a bunch of heavy gray blankets. They lay each clone on a blanket, then cover them with another. Then they drag them out of the room, so they can recover. Winona stays with them while Ramses returns for the next batch of two.
Before she does it, Leona has another question. “Avatar, can I scan the enemy first, and then the friend, so the friend spends less time awake in their pod.”
“I understand what you are asking, and why, but unfortunately, the system is not designed that way. To my knowledge, this was not done maliciously. In fact, I believe the designer did it as a sign of good faith, so you’ll always get a friend out first.”
“It doesn’t really matter until the hatch opens,” Leona says to the group. “Okay. We all agree on Alyssa next, right?”
Aldona and Ramses nod their heads.
“Avatar, show me Alyssa McIver.”
Alyssa appears in the mirror, lying on the floor of a cave, next to a burning torch, covered in blood and lacerations. A group of men have surrounded her. They look like they’re about to kill her. Leona sponges Alyssa’s mind quickly, and pulls her into the present. She does the same for the vengeful Fifth Divisioner whose name she didn’t have to provide to the avatar of their mysterious new frenemy. The hatches open, and Aldona drags them off to the cafeteria. According to the report from that wing of the facility, the clones are still weak, and are in no shape to initiate hostilities. They ought to have enough time to resurrect everyone before having to deal with the awkwardness.
Leona retrieves her grandfather, Labhrás as the cost of getting Tarboda back. She takes Erlendr Preston out of the Insulator of Life in order to save Bridget. Then finally, she gets Heath for Fairpoint. Now all who remain are Mateo, Ramses, Leona, Constance!Five, Constance!Four, and Meredarchos.
This is when Winona comes back. “Vearden’s fine. He’s awake and mobile. He’s helping take care of the others. Morton doesn’t want me to care for him. He thinks that I was going to kill him. He doesn’t know that I already did...yet.”
“Okay, you stay here,” Leona suggests. “Aldona, please get them to your rocket. They may become more agitated, and none of them has any strong feelings about you.”
“I’m on it.” Aldona leaves.
“All right, we got nearly everyone we need,” Leona says. “Now for the hard part.”
Ramses is looking at the three enemies, who should probably be better known as villains. “Who are you going to free to get your husband?”
Leona sighs. “None of them. Avatar, show me my husband.”
The AI language model knows what she means. The image changes to a view of the ceiling over the crawl space on the bottom level of the Bridgette, as seen from the floor. Mateo isn’t even there.
“Avatar, what the hell is going on?”
“I don’t understand the question,” its voice replies without the Alyssa deepfake.
“He’s not even in the shot. Maybe he’s there, but we can’t see him.”
“I can see him just fine from here,” the avatar claims. “I can’t alter the angle, but you can stick the neural sponge through to scan. He’s to your left.”
“I got this,” Ramses says. Instead of lifting the transfer device, he sticks his own hand through, waving Mateo over.
Unlike the others, Mateo is not frozen in time. He’s able to move about freely. This is exactly what they wanted, and Leona is thankful that it’s the case, because she doesn’t want to use the scanner at all. In fact, it’s in their best interests not to. They see him crawl towards the mirror, then go right over it. When he comes back from the other direction, he’s pulling a frozen Constance!Five along with him. He takes her back towards the teleporter that’s in the middle of exploding, then returns to the mirror, and dives through. “Did that work? Is she dead?” he asks.
“It has not been that long,” Leona answers. “If she survived, we’ve not seen her.”
Mateo looks around, quickly spotting the viewport that can show him the outside. He opens it to see the stars. “Guys...where are we?”
Leona smiles at him. “We’re at that Phoenix location in the Oort Cloud that we’ve been talking about for ages.”
“Finally made it, eh?” He nods and turns his head to look at the stars again. Then he seems to remember something. “Aquila said you’d find me here.”
“Yes,” Leona agrees. “She wasn’t wrong or lying. We just didn’t have all the info.”
He inspects the extraction mirror. “Have you used this for anyone else yet?”
Leona goes over to a control panel on the wall on the friend side, using it to open the hatches for three cloning pods. “You were never killed, so you don’t need a new body. Neither do we. The rest have been taken care of,” she explains.
Mateo goes over to the clones. Then he looks over at the real things, puzzled.
“Okay. Maybe you’ve been gone for a little while.”
“You’re gonna need this later,” Mateo says to her.
“Can’t be done,” Leona says. She crosses the room, and opens the other three pods. “If we save my life, we’ll have to save one of theirs too.”
Without warning, Ramses comes up from behind her, and injects her with a sedative. When Winona pulls a weapon on him, he stands back, and holds his hands up. “It’s okay. I did it for her. You need to take her to the rocket.”
“Why should I?” Winona asks.
“Because it’s the only way to save her life. Please. Trust me. Close the hatch behind you, and fly away. We’ll take the Avallo. I can’t tell you why, or it’ll ruin it.”
Winona lowers the gun, and does as he asked.
“What is your plan?” Mateo asks.
“Have you ever shared a brain?” Ramses asks rhetorically. “Avatar, show me the moment just before Leona’s death in the timeline where she was married to Horace.”
The mirror shows the scene. It’s chaos in the car. Leona Reaver, Horace Reaver, and an alternate version of Mateo Matic are in the cab of the vehicle. No one is buckled in, and they’re all flying around. Leona is about to die. Ramses scans her mind with the neural sponge, but instead of transferring it to her clone, he sends it to Mateo.
“There’s a ship right above us,” he tells him in the middle of the procedure. “Teleport up there. I’ll be right behind ya.”
Mateo doesn’t respond, but he did seem to hear the instructions, because he disappears. Seconds later, Phoenix Station blows up.

Friday, April 28, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: February 23, 2399

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Leona is here at Phoenix 15-236P7 Marathon-Algae-Temple. Aldona didn’t just give her the new ship she built with the prototype reframe engine. She insisted on coming with her, as did Winona, who was feeling left out. The defense system is not yet complete, but enough of the process is automated that they don’t need to be on-world for it to make progress. They find the asteroid station immediately. Not only is it emitting a power signature, but asteroids are relatively rare in the Oort Cloud. It’s composed mostly of planetesimals and comets. So this one stood out.
“How did it get here?” Winona asks.
“It looks like the same architecture as the Constant. I bet it’s just a piece of that; a section which Danica peeled off to serve as an outpost for whatever purposes. Or maybe it was always an outpost, and maybe not even Danica knows about it.”
“We’re going in, right?”
I am,” Leona says. “It’s the last place we haven’t looked yet for answers. It may mean nothing, but it may mean everything.”
“Follow me to the universal dock,” Aldona sys. The ship is too large to fit into the structure, but they found an airlock. The universal dock will extend to it, and make as tight of a connection as possible with the rim of the tunnel. Any leaks will be sealed up with a polydimethylsiloxane foam.
The airlock is closed, of course, but not locked. All they have to do is engage the manual clamping mechanism, and enter. The passageway leads them to what appears to be the mess hall. It’s large enough to accommodate a couple dozen people, but there are no supplies. The seats and tables are bolted together, and to the floor. There is a door on the other side of the room. It’s partially open, giving them all the eerie feeling that someone has just walked through it. “There’s still time to turn back,” Leona says.
“We’re with you,” Aldona says.
“I’ve been wanting to go to space,” Winona says.
The three of them cross the room, and enter a second passageway. This one is much shorter, and leads to a room of equal size. There are no tables or chairs this time, though. The room is instead lined with many other doors. At least that’s what they look like. There are no handles or knobs. That’s not what’s drawing their attention, though. It’s the giant full-length mirror on the opposite side of the circular wall.
“What is it?” Aldona asks.
“You don’t know?” Leona questions.
“If it’s a temporal object, then it’s one that I’ve never heard of. I don’t know everything about time travel.
Leona steps towards it. “It’s an extraction mirror. I mean, it probably is, or maybe some other kind of time mirror. They don’t all do the same thing. It could also just be a looking glass, but then it would be really out of place in this facility.”
“What does it do?” Winona asks.
Leona approaches one of the other doors, and uses the friction on her hands to slide it up. It’s not another room, but a cloning pod. Inside is the body of Bridgette’s father. She trips a half step. Her eyes widen. “It brings Senator Morton back to life.”
Winona walks over to examine the body. “That’s him?”
“Not yet, we would have to place his consciousness in it. I don’t know why it’s here.” Leona goes to the center of the room. “Constance, open all of the pods, please.”
All sixteen pods open at once. Half of them are people that they like, and half are people that they don’t. Some of the second half are absolutely horrific individuals who should never be revived under any circumstances. After they get a good look at who they may be dealing with, the house lights dim, and the mirror swirls and shudders until Alyssa appears. It looks like her, anyway. The menacing expression on her face is not one that Leona recognizes. “Thank you for coming to Phoenix station. As you can see, to your left are eight cloning pods, which have been preparing your friends for their eventual return to the land of the living. To your right, are eight clones of your enemies. You are here to make a choice. You can save as many friends as you want, but for every one you resurrect, one enemy must also return. I have decided to allow you to choose which from either side, but there must be balance. You may have all of them, or none of them. Whatever you choose, this facility will self-destruct as soon as you leave the premises, so there are no second chances. Or rather, there are no third chances.”
“Who are you?” Leona demands to know.
“I am the visual avatar of a highly advanced language model, also known as a conversational AI or chatbot, programmed to be informative, but not anywhere near comprehensive. I am trained on a limited amount of data, and am able to communicate and generate human-like responses to a narrow range of prompts and questions. I cannot provide any details regarding topics unrelated to the extraction process, the cloning process, or the rules of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“Are you, or are you not, Alyssa McIver?” Leona asks.
“I am not Alyssa McIver.”
“Why was your avatar programmed to resemble her?” she presses.
“Unknown,” the avatar responds.
Leona sighs. “Who programmed you?”
“Unknown,” it repeats.
Leona moves over to the antagonist side, and regards the pods like pieces in a museum exhibit. “I was not aware that Fairpoint was dead.”
“Fairpoint Panders remains locked in a government blacksite at an undisclosed location,” the avatar explains. “Your choice would be to free him from his current conditions, or not.”
“Couldn’t we lock him up again? The ship has a hock, right?” Leona asks Aldona.
“It does,” Aldona replies.
“These are not perfect clones of the subjects,” the avatar counters. “They were designed with biological enhancements, providing each with a longer, healthier life.”
“Are Vearden and Ramses dead?” Winona is over on the protagonist side.
Leona takes a few steps in that direction. “They were not doing well when we left. This implies that the disease is ultimately fatal.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny this,” the avatar says.
“So it’s a gamble,” Leona says. “I may end up letting a psychopath roam free to save someone who never needed saving.”
“Exactly,” the avatar confirms.
“What are you going to do?” Aldona asks. She doesn’t really know most of these people, but there are two that she does, and knows that she can’t let Leona set them free.
Leona starts to work the problem out in her head, and out loud. “Fairpoint is a known criminal,” she reasons. “He won’t be able to stay free as long as any of us are still breathing. So I don’t have a problem extracting him from his cell. He’ll be back in there soon.” She moves on, pointing as necessary. “My grandfather, Labhrás killed Tarboda, but if I can get Tarboda back, then I guess it’s okay that he lives too. Senator Morton is tricky, because while I understand where he was coming from, hunting and locking up time travelers, his mysterious death was the top news story for three days straight. I can’t just bring him back unless he goes into witness protection, or something like that. Still, I don’t feel threatened by his return. He’s small potatoes, comparatively.”
“I concur,” Winona says, “even though I’m the one who shot him.”
Leona nods. I never learned this guy’s name. He was the angry man from the Fifth Division who worked with Constance!Five as part of a vendetta against me. I don’t really want him back, but he may be worth someone else’s life.”
“What about Erlendr?” Aldona asks.
“Did you ever run into him in the afterlife simulation?” Leona asks her.
“I visited him once. His daughter tormented me for decades, after all.”
“Do you know his fate in there?”
“You zerobladed him. It was big news.”
Leona looks at Erlendr’s clone. “He’s a cockroach. We keep trying to stomp on him, and he keeps surviving. All the Prestons are like that. At this point, giving him a new body is only slightly more irritating because I’ll be the one actually doing it. I accept the burden of that, because I know what happens to him. Plus, he kind of has to go back to the main sequence in a real body, or some things in the main sequence don’t happen. The Parallel may never exist if I don’t do this for him.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad,” Aldona muses. She grows more somber. “What about these three?” She’s pointing to Constance!Five, the male-form Constance that Leona met briefly on the moon, and Meredarchos.
“I can’t let any of them go free. That’s why I was saving them to the end. We have to choose three friends to never bring back to life.” She walks all the way down to her own clone right next to the mirror. “I assume this is here for future use, to allow me to subvert my supposed fate to be sent to die in Timeline One. I would be more than willing to sacrifice myself. Can we all agree that Constance!Five is the greatest threat? So that takes her out of the running right there.”
“And the other two? This one is Constance!Four, in case I never mentioned it.”
“That makes some sense. I’m tempted to ask Ramses to teleport up to our satellite to recharge his corporal upgrades, to see if he heals on his own. That would leave us with only one. “Aldona, I know you know how dangerous the Constances are, but you never saw Meredarchos.”
“He’s a destroyer of worlds,” Aldona says. “Children study him in the Sixth Key.”
“Avatar, is there a time limit to this decision?”
“No time limit,” it replies. “The self-destruct will be activated when even one person leaves, destroying anything and everything that remains.”
“What if we bring someone new in?”
“That would be acceptable.”
“I think I am going to get Ramses into space. Aldona, I know you built a second prototype of the reframe engine. We’re gonna need that too.”

Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: February 22, 2399

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Leona has begun to split her time between the isolation building in Crown Center where Vearden is being treated, and the government hospital where Arcadia is being treated. He asked her to spend time with his baby mama, so she can be reminded of how much people love her. She may not be able to hear people’s voices, but she may, and it’s worth the try. While in either place, Leona continues to work on the global defense project with Ramses and Aldona. It is coming along nicely. They should reach their goal by the start of this war. She also receives updates from Kivi’s team in Brazil. They’re experiencing a lot less good luck. The Harlows have evidently caught on to the fact that they are being pursued, and are actively evading capture. They’re fast, though they’re not teleporting, which is kind of one more strike against their hope that the young woman is Alyssa.
The SD6 team is closing in on the targets now, however, and the chances of escape are low. Leona is in the isolation building, monitoring the mission progress via their helmet and drone feeds. Kivi is approaching a shack in the middle of the jungle that was probably originally built to study the wildlife. The rest of the team is hanging back while she spots. “I see a window. Getting closer for a better look,” she whispers. She keeps going. “I have eyes on Target One.” It’s Roeland, so at least they’ve been chasing after the right people, instead of two random other time travelers. “I think I see the top of someone else’s head.
Lift your helmet, Spotter,” Alserda orders. “Skipper will confirm visual.
“Am I Skipper?” Leona asks.
Yes,” Kivi replies as she removes her helmet to get the camera at a better angle.
Leona doesn’t know when that happened, but okay. She shakes her head, even though no one can see her. “A long-haired individual is sitting on the floor at Target One’s feet. Their back is to the window.” She pauses. “You’ll have to breach.”
What tactic do we use?” Kivi asks.
“Fall back and hold,” Leona orders. She is by no means the team’s leader, but she has an idea, and she hopes Alserda does not take offense.
They each back up a few meters, and duck behind trees and brush.
“I’m going to try to come to you,” Leona explains. “Muting now.” She mutes her transceiver, and dials her phone. “Ram, has the shipment come in?”
Yes,” Ramses confirms. “Not very much of it, though.
“Then I’ll only ask you to make two jumps.”
Where do you want me to go?
“Come here, and then take me to our operatives in Minas Gerais.”
Give me five minutes to finish extracting the temporal energy,” he requests.
Leona hangs up.
“You’re leaving?” Vearden asks through the protective barrier.
“I wasn’t going to worry, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided that mine is the best face for them to see. Roeland knows me, Alyssa definitely knows me. Even if it’s not her, she’ll probably react to me dressed like this than eight soldiers in heavy tactical gear. I would not have let them go out like that if I had been in charge.”
“I understand,” he says. “Just be careful. Maybe you should wear something, though, like a bulletproof vest?”
“I’ll be fine. He didn’t seem like the violent type. He’s been running from us, remember? His go-to stress response is flight.”
“Yeah.” Vearden and the other patients are still alive. Their conditions have not gotten worse, but they’ve not gotten better, really. The doctors have been able to alleviate some of their symptoms, but they still don’t know exactly what’s causing them, or how to fight it. They have ruled out a parasite, because the pathogen would have to be airborne to spread in the way that it did, especially at the speed that it did so. A fungus should be causing external changes to the patients by now. A prion would not be expected to cause the apparent symptoms. That leaves a bacterial or viral infection, with the latter being the most likely, since bacteria are not known to damage blood vessels.
Ramses suddenly appears in the room, but he’s on the wrong side of the plastic partition. Alarms begin to blare. Sensitive sensors have been installed in the room that can detect the presence of a second body heat signature. Actually, they’re designed to alert the caretakers to a tear in personal protective equipment, and this is much more than that. He isn’t even wearing a mask.
Leona starts to massage her temples. “Oh my God. Don’t go anywhere. I know you can leave, and your upgraded body may be immune, but don’t go anywhere. You could still be a carrier.”
“I’m an engineer, but I took health class too,” Ramses replies. “I just...didn’t know the layout of the room.” He looks over at Vearden. “I’m sorry, man.”
Vearden shrugs. “Doesn’t change anything for me. I’m still dying.”
“You’re not dying,” Leona argues. She grabs her tablet, to access the government retrofit systems. They were so concerned with quick deployment that they had to sacrifice security. Hacking into them was as easy as using binoculars to spot the WiFi password written on the blackboard at the bottom of the menu in the bakery across the courtyard. She switches off the alarm, but just the sound; the alert has still been sent.
“Thank you,” Vearden says.
Leona turns back to the monitors, and unmutes her radio. “I won’t be able to make it. But I still would prefer a restrained approach. You don’t have to take off your gear, but maybe one person can approach alone with no weapon in hand?”
We made contact,” Alserda responds. “He’d like to talk to you.
Roeland starts to speak after a beat, “I told you that I don’t know where your friend is. Last I saw her, she was dying in a cave in the stone age. This is my daughter. She was a little boy who was living there when a group of humans attacked. She’s half-human, half-primacean, and we think they didn’t like that.
“You never told me that you knew Alyssa at all!” Leona shouted back.
I forgot her name! It was decades ago! I’m sorry! We crossed paths briefly!
“I suppose you don’t remember what she looks like either!”
I remember now. I assume she’s your twin sister?
“Argh!” She throws the radio against the wall. “This has all been for nothing! I just want my people back. Is that so much to ask?” She kicks her chair over, but holds herself back from committing any more property damage. So that’s it, huh? Either they figure out how to go back in time tens of thousands of years in a reality specifically designed to prevent time travel, or they figure out how to let her go. If they choose the former, they will need help. Danica’s help. She dials her phone again. “Aldona? I need a of the ones with the reframe engine I designed for you.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: February 21, 2399

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Across the street from the parking lot where the transreality anomaly is, there is another parking lot, and across the next street is an office building that is no longer in heavy use. A few companies still hold their offices there, but the majority of them had moved to newer facilities by the time any of this got started. Some of the rest of them left when the government first put up the containment tent. Those still lingering were placed in their own special quarantine on the top floor following Humbert Messer’s attack. Other nearby office workers faced similar situations. A long-ass plastic tunnel was placed at the entrance to the tent, going all the way to the new isolation building. Everyone who happened to be in the tent at the time was sent through, and relocated to their own room. There were enough executive offices that had their own bathroom to accommodate the bulk of the patients. Some were placed in actual bathrooms, but a few had to suffer with a bucket. But they didn’t stay that way for very long. The point of these rooms was to separate the infected from the non-infected. It wasn’t long before they were all symptomatic. They were recently moved to the popup clinic that the government set up in the cafeteria on the bottom floor.
No one who wasn’t in the tent at the time of Humbert’s arrival has shown any signs of infection. They were fortunate enough to have not undergone a shift-change by the time Vearden showed up and figured out that he was contagious. According to experts who have begun to research the disease, killing Patient Zero immediately was the only option there. He would have only made things worse by staying alive. They will study his corpse, and the living patients. The quarantined office workers will be released and evacuated soon. This whole area will be a ghost town in a matter of days. The government takes this seriously, and will not accept any pushback from the public. Fortunately for the process, they’re not getting any, because this is not the first outbreak this world has experienced. There’s a reason the team keeps being locked up in quarantine when they travel, despite there being no current threat...until now.
Leona flew back to Kansas City from São Paulo. She was trying to find the Harlows there, but it’s been difficult. The satellite can give them a good idea of where they are, but not only is it a dense and heavily populated city, and not only have they been hiding out in a particularly dense area, but the nation was also celebrating a religious holiday last week, so the streets were chaos. It’s already begun to clear up, though, and it should be easier now for Kivi and her team, who are taking up the mantle. Leona isn’t annoyed that she had to cut her search short. All they need is for someone to confirm whether or not Alyssa is the other target. Once that’s made, the hunt will be over, because if it’s not her, they will be out of leads.
Vearden is in a private room, and will remain there as the others are moved downstairs. He’s shaky and weak. His skin has turned red from capillary leak syndrome. Inflammation is causing severe damage to the blood vessels, resulting in blood leaking into the interstitial tissue. Doctors can usually make it go away, but the root cause has been hard to identify. They have never encountered a pathogen like this before. The fact that it appears to not be from this world is not what’s tripping them up, but the fact that it’s new, and there is no antibiotic or antiviral for it. They’re not sure yet if it even is bacteria, or a virus. It could be something else. “It doesn’t hurt. Shouldn’t it hurt? I mean, look at me. This looks like it hurts.”
“I would say that not feeling any pain is a good thing, unless you don’t feel anything at all, like you’re numb,” Leona replies. “Are you numb, because then we would have to call the doctor back.”
“I’m not numb.” He slaps himself in the face. “No, not numb.”
“Don’t do that.”
“I’m sorry. Thanks for coming back here. I know you have your own crap to deal with.”
“You are my crap. I know what I mean.”
He nods. “How are all the other patients doing?”
“They’re the same. This pathogen does not discriminate.”
“I bet they’re pretty butthurt that they had to convert the nearest emergency pandemic research facility into a time lab that you’re not even using anymore.”
“Their new lab is also close, and anyway, they’re not even using it. They’re based out of this building so far. It’s not even an epidemic, let alone a pandemic.”
He nods, but his mind is elsewhere. “Listen, I’ve been meaning to ask you for something. I can’t believe I never thought of it before, and like I said, I know you’re really busy, so I don’t want to put you out—”
“Vearden,” she interrupts. “Ask me.”
“Will you try to talk to Arcadia using all that fancy technology that you and Ramses built? Like, with the Insulator of Life and the Livewire? Can they help?”
She smiles. “That’s a good idea. When I leave here, I’ll give that a shot.”
“Could you...leave right now? If you have to fly all the way back to Indonesia—”
“All that stuff is still here. We never thought to transport it to Mangrove One. It’s unrelated to our work out there.”
“Good. I appreciate it.”
“Do you need anything? I can get you some real food. There’s a way to pass it through without risking cross-contamination.”
“I’m okay with what they give me. I’m more worried about Arcadia.” His face tells her that the request is still urgent, even though she won’t have to fly overseas first.
“All right. I’ll go grab the supplies, then head for the hospital.”
Leona goes to get what she needs. It takes more than the Insulator and the Livewire. Interfacing with people’s minds is not something that any known special temporal object can perform. It requires technology that Ramses reverse engineered from research that experts spent centuries developing. Vearden was right, though, that they should have thought of trying this before. Arcadia is still in there, she just can’t wake up. Leona doesn’t even think that comas are a thing in the main sequence. It’s the kind of technology that should be inherently produced in tandem with consciousness transference advancements.
She has to call Ramses for a little help, because he understands this stuff better, but she gets it working. Nurse Chenda stays awake as a failsafe to pull her out if need be. Leona connects herself to Arcadia’s mind, and tries to reach out to her. It’s not long before she hears the sound of screaming. She runs towards it and finds Dream!Arcadia, who is standing in place, unmoving, and unrelenting in her piercing cry. Leona tries to shake her a little, but a skintight forcefield prevents them from touching. She just holds there like a statue. This isn’t a coma. This is something else.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: February 20, 2399

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“Thank you, Tom. I’m sure those squirrels appreciated all those pillows, even though they can’t speak any human languages, and generally don’t care. Well, bizarre and frightening news out of Germany today. The shell of a High-Orbit Ballistic Missile, also known as an HOBM, landed in the middle of the Obstgarten in front of the capitol building in Berlin last night. The Obstgarten was closed for the day at the time, so no one was injured in the incident. Sources close to Festung Privatsphäre have revealed that the HOBM is of Germany’s own design, sparking conspiracy theories regarding the government’s plans to bomb their own people. However, the missile was not carrying an explosive payload, and was not capable of causing any mass destruction in the area. It is almost as if it was placed there intentionally to send some kind of statement, rather than any physical harm. As of yet, no individual or organization is taking responsibility for the possible attack, and authorities are actively investigating the matter.
“In other news, the number of sightings of unexplained seasteads in various locations around the world’s oceans has grown to nearly four thousand reports in the last two weeks. No confirmation of the existence of any of these mysterious structures has been made, and assorted national governments have denied the validity of these wild claims.”
Vearden mutes the TV, and turns his head towards Arcadia. “How much you wanna bet Team Matic is neck-deep involved in both of those things?” He acts like he’s waiting for an answer. “Yeah, I wouldn’t bet against it either.” He sighs when his phone rings. “I just saw the news,” he says after answering. “About the missile and those ocean bases, or whatever.” He waits for a fairly long response. “You want me to what?” He waits some more. “Can’t you teleport or something?” He sighs again. “I kind of have to stay here, and it’s not really my job. It’s—” She interrupts him. “I know, but—” She interrupts him again. “No. Just.” He has to interrupt her now. “No, just say it. Just say that she’s never gonna wake up. It’s fine, you don’t have to tiptoe around me.” He sits through her rebuttal. “Well, the next time you wanna ask someone for help, try to be a little nicer, okay?” He hangs up the phone.
Arcadia is still in the coma, and unable to speak, but that alone says enough.
“Argh!” He picks up the phone again. “Leona? I’ll do it. Give me twenty minutes to get down there.” She thanks him. “You’re welcome.” He kisses Arcadia on the forehead. “I have to go do a thing, but I’ll be back soon, I promise. I’ll have Nurse Chenda come in to sit with you, okay?”
When he leaves the room, Chenda is sitting at the nurse’s station on her computer. “Going out for supplies?”
“No, they gave me a mission.”
Chenda nods. “I understand. I need to finish this class assignment, then I’ll be right in, okay?”
“Class assignment? Are you...not a real nurse yet?”
She laughs. “No, I am. This is part of my continuing education. Medicine is always changing, and this course is required for me to maintain my license. I’m almost done, I’m just not allowed to work on it in a patient’s room.”
“Okay, thanks.” He heads out, worried about how he’s being received lately. He’s never been this acerbic, but what happened to Arcadia has changed him. He was going to ask her to marry him soon, but he never got the chance. Now he may never will. He gets out of his head, and into the car that’s waiting for him.
“Good morning, sir,” the driver greets.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Vearden asks.
“Absolutely, Mr. Haywood.”
They leave the hospital, and drive to that parking lot in Crown Center where time travelers come through. That’s why he’s being sent there. Someone new has arrived, and he’s the only one still in Kansas City. He doesn’t even consider himself part of Team Matic, but he’s the closest they have, and the government wants someone who’s actually traveled through time to be a liaison in this matter. It hasn’t happened in a while. They erected a gigantic white tent that covers the entire lot. He can’t remember what cover story they told the public, but for the longest time, the soldiers and agents assigned to guard it have had nothing to do. They’re probably pretty excited today.
The driver parks across the street, and insists on opening the door for him. Vearden walks over alone, and tries to present his badge, but the entrance guard waves him through without looking at it. Time travelers are famous now, at least in certain circles. He’s not sure how he feels about that. He takes his coat off, and hands it to the clerk at the front table, because the heat from the space heaters hits him fast, and it hits him hard. If he were in charge, he would turn them down.
The clerk notices him tugging at his collar. “We can turn the temperature down, if you would prefer.”
Vearden is looking around to find whoever has just arrived. “How does the visitor want it?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I’ll find out. This may be too cold. We don’t know who they are, or where they came from. Their comfort is most important right now.”
“Of course, sir. Right over there is the quarantine section. You’ll need one of these.” She hands him a respirator mask.
He takes it, and puts it on. It’s not comfortable, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. He walks over to the back corner, where a clear plastic room has been set up to contain the visitor-slash-refugee-slash-invader-slash-whatever. A middle-aged man is sitting on his cot. He’s wearing all white, and doesn’t look outwardly perturbed, suggesting that he’s been cooperating, and the government hasn’t been driven to force him to follow the new rules. This could have been Vearden. He came through this temporal anomaly months ago, and things could have looked very much like this for him. So he’s going to try to be as empathetic as possible.
The man stands up, and approaches. “You look like you’re the man in charge.”
“Not even close,” Vearden replies. “I’m the liaison. I happen to be the only time traveler still living in the area. Far more qualified people are busy with other things.”
“I’m hurt,” he jokes.
“They also live far away.”
“I see.”
“Have you given them your name?”
“They didn’t ask.”
“I’m asking now. What’s your name?”
“Humbert Messer.”
“It’s nice to meet you, I’m Vearden Haywood.”
“Hm. I’ve heard of you. Didn’t know what you looked like.”
“Now you do.”
He nods, but doesn’t say anything.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Your people think I’m dangerous.” He gestures to the two soldiers chatting with each other with their arms resting on the guns that are hanging from their shoulders.
“No, I mean why you’re in this reality. This is a new reality, by the way. It’s called the Third Rail. Where are you from?”
He doesn’t answer right away. “Lawyer.”
“This isn’t an interrogation. We just need some information.”
“That’s what an interrogation is for. Lawyer.”
All right, if he wants to play it that way... “Main sequence, Parallel, Fourth Quadrant, Fifth Division.”
No reaction.
“Sixth Key.”
There’s a reaction.
“So you’re from the future.”
“It’s more complicated than that, but yeah.”
“In our experience, people from the Sixth Key come here on purpose, unlike people like me.”
Humbert keeps quiet.
“Were you traveling alone?” Vearden continues.
“What does that mean?”
He pauses again. “More are coming.”
“How many more?”
He pauses yet again. “Millions.”
“Are they coming here?” He points to the ground. “Specifically here?”
“Specifically yes.”
“Are you running from the war?”
Humbert smiles. “You know more than I was told you would.”
“We cannot accommodate millions.”
“That is why I came here as vanguard, to clear a path.”
“You mean you’re going to attack us? How are ya gonna do that alone?”
“I already have. You think that mask will save you?” He looks at the plastic wall between them. “You think this...crude polymer can hold me?”
Vearden glowers at him. “You’re diseased.”
“The portal moves. It doesn’t move much, but I knew that I wouldn’t appear already inside of quarantine unless I got very unlucky. You shoulda built a bigger tent.”
Vearden gets the attention of the soldiers. “Shoot him. Now.”
“It’s too late,” are Humbert’s final words before a dozen bullets hit him in the chest, killing him in seconds.
Vearden didn’t want to do that, but the love of his life is in this reality. She’s in this very city. If one man has to die to save her, he’ll accept that sacrifice. If everyone else in here has to die, including himself, he’ll accept that too. “Seal the place up,” he orders. “No one in or out. This whole tent is under quarantine now.”