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.”

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