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Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: May 10, 2431

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
Once everyone was back in the ship, Ramses plotted a course to Ex-42, and launched. As they were standing there, Mateo looked over at Vitalie!324, who seemed to be deep in thought. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, or even what she was feeling, since she wasn’t part of the empathy circle, but he took a guess. “We’re going the wrong way.”
Ramses was taken aback. “Leona, could you check my math?”
“No, your math is fine,” Mateo started to clarify. “I mean, I don’t know that it is, but it always has been. I just mean, I think we’re going to the wrong place. How many populated planets did you say were on the way to Ex-42?”
“Thirty-one,” Leona reminded him.
“That’s thirty-one planets who could all do with a little extra...vitality.”
Vitalie hadn’t been paying that much attention, but she recognized the play on her name. “Wait, what? No, you don’t have to stop at all those other worlds on my account. Let’s go find your bad guy.”
“Hm,” Leona said. “Thirty-one worlds means an extra seven days on our mission. That’s not that big a deal.”
“Well, who knows what you’re gonna run into on the intervening planets?” Vitalie argued. “One of them might end up stopping you from being able to reach it. No, the safest course of action is to go straight there.” She shoved her open hand forwards from her nose.
“It could be a trap,” Angela reasoned. “Maybe that’s not where the archive is at all. Maybe it’s an inescapable prison planet. Going to the other worlds is strategically logical. We can’t lose the information that we have. We can only gain more.”
“That’s true,” Leona agreed. “So we wouldn’t be going just for the other versions of you, Vita. There are other reasons to make stops. Again, it’s a week out of the way.”
“It’s seven years,” Vitalie argued. “I think you lot tend to forget that. Everyone else moves on without you, and a lot can happen in that extra time. Ex-42 might be destroyed by the time we make it there if we go on every detour available. Hell, the Prime Minister might have sent a relativistic kill missile to beat us there.”
Marie shrugged. “If he sent a missile tomorrow, it would beat us there anyway. Hell, he could be on the quantum phone with them right now, instructing them to detonate their self-destruct, and then we would end up the whole twenty-four years too late. Time jumps or not, it’s a risk.”
Mateo placed a hand on Vitalie’s shoulder. “We’ll make one stop every day. There, we’ll resupply, if needed, maybe help a few people, and yes, we’ll also find your alternate self’s stasis pod, and let her out. If not us, then who?”
“Don’t think of it as being selfish,” Olimpia reasoned. “They’re not really you anymore. You’re helping your sisters.” She gestured towards Angela and Marie, who were also alternates of the same person, but now thought of each other as twin sisters.
Vitalie nodded in concession. “Okay. Where are we going instead, then?”
Ramses pulled up the map. “Ex-548. Gah, I can’t figure out the pattern here. It’s buggin’ the shit out of me,” he lamented
“Ex-548 ho!” Mateo declared, standing tall, and pointing towards the back wall.
They all stared at him. Leona glanced over at Ramses, and nodded slightly. Ramses went over to the controls, and altered course. The Goldilocks Corridor was named such that the stars with habitable planets were all laid out in a relatively straight line, so he only had to adjust a little bit.

A year later, they were in orbit over Ex-548. During the interim year, the ship took readings of the surface. No signals were being sent out into space, or within the atmosphere. There were signs of civilization, but no sign of movement. This planet was either abandoned, or the inhabitants were living underground.
“Or they’re all dead,” Olimpia offered.
“Yeah,” Leona agreed. “They could be dead. Mateo, you found Vitalie!908, so I’ll look for her this time. Olimpia, you wanna come with me?”
“Sure,” she answered.
“Hubby, it’s your turn to stay on the ship. Marie, you know enough about this stuff to stay with him in case something goes wrong up here. The rest will go down and see what’s up with what apparently used to be populated areas.”
“There are-slash-were five major settlements here,” Ramses reported. “We can split up, and—”
“Nope,” Leona interrupted. “Ram, Vitalie, and Angela, go together, and stay together. You have the most dangerous job, so I don’t want to shrink the numbers any more than they already are. We’re getting faster at finding the stasis pod, so I’m sure we’ll join you pretty quickly.”
“Ready...” Olimpia began, “...break.”
A couple of hours in, Leona and Olimpia were still trying to triangulate the stasis pod, having underestimated how difficult it would be. In his spare time, Ramses had been trying to figure out how to track them directly, but they weren’t designed to be located like a GPS beacon. It was also possible in this case that word had gotten around about the team’s interference in the goings-on of the Exin Empire that someone decided to dig her up, and do something else with her. Maybe they tossed her into the host star, or just released her, and then shot her in the head. They would keep trying all day either way.
The settlement group was on the ground too, looking for an explanation for why no one seemed to live here anymore. When they were last here, the natives were living under turn of the 21st century Earth conditions, though they weren’t anywhere near that population size. Each settlement was the size of a town small enough for rumors to spread faster than sound, but large enough for a resident to meet someone as an adult who they had never heard of before. They were thousands of kilometers apart, on separate continents. None of the homes appeared to be locked, so they entered a few to get an idea of what may have happened here. There wasn’t any rotten food on the dinner table, or showers left running. There were also no signs of struggle, or hurried packing. Whatever the cause, it wasn’t sudden. The people had time to leave the lights off, and the doors closed. They left on purpose, and based on the level of dust, the computer estimated that it happened about a year ago. The interesting part was that all of the settlements were left in the same state, which meant that they all agreed to leave at the same time. The team just kept looking for answers.
Meanwhile, up on the ship, Mateo and Marie were in realspace, instead of the pocket dimension. They were lying down back to back in the tiny habitable section, admiring the view through the ports. “Hey, are your comms off?” Mateo asked.
“Output is off. Input is in cocktail mode.” Cocktail mode kept the conversations silent for the user unless someone else on the network used any out of a list of preselected keywords, like their names, or emergency.
Mateo didn’t continue right away. “Do you ever think about...?”
“Think about what?”
“Heath?”
“Oh.”
“Sorry, if that’s too sensitive of a topic.”
“No, it’s okay. I know I don’t talk about him enough. I mean he’s still my husband, and I should think about him more. I just...I don’t. I don’t know why. I know we left things in a bad place, but I think if I let myself dwell on it, I’ll see that I’m the bad guy. I left him long before he left me. I was never really committed to that relationship. I just never realized it until he had the courage to walk away. Don’t get me wrong, I still love him, but I’m a part of this team, and he’s not. He never wanted to be. He stayed as long as he did for me, but he has his own life to live. Could we have reconciled, and gotten back together?” She sighed. “Probably. Neither one of us tried very hard, and then we both all but died. It just seemed...like that chapter was over. I wanna be here, with all of you. I have no clue how he feels about it at this point. I hope he’s okay.”
“I hope so too.”
“Sometimes I wish I had just been alone during the four years before you showed up. It would have been easier. No attachments, no complications. I’m not blaming him for anything, but how would things have turned out if we could have just come back together as a team?”
“It could have been worse,” he pointed out. “I mean, I know it would have been worse if you had been alone. If you had ever recovered from that isolation, it still would have weighed on you for the rest of your life. I think, in the end, it was a good thing that you met him, even with the complications. I doubt our shared experience in the Third Rail for that year would have been improved by deleting him from the roster.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” she agreed.
“You’ll see him again. We always do.”
“Really?” She chuckled. “When was the last time you saw—I dunno—your mother, or that nanobot intelligence who tried to kill you near the beginning of your time traveling?”
He laughed with her. “Mirage? It’s been about since back then. I suppose you’re right; we don’t see everyone from our past again.”
Is everyone on?” Olimpia asked through comms.
Everyone confirmed according to a predetermined order, so they would not talk over one another.
Jump to our location, including Group Breakthrough. The ship will be fine on its own. There’s no one here. Not anymore.
Leona and Olimpia were found standing next to Vitalie!548’s stasis pod in the middle of nowhere. It was leaning slightly to the left, open and empty, with dirt and sand piled up inside. “Now we know why it took us so long to find it.”
Ramses nodded. “It’s inactive, which incidentally shrinks its networking capabilities to a smaller radius. No reason to place two empty pods in sync.”
“Why were you able to find it at all?” Angela asked them.
“It’s still powered on, just enough to maintain coherence for this message, of which we only watched the beginning.” Leona reached in, and pressed a button.
At first, nothing happened. Then a hologram of Vitalie appeared from outside of frame, and turned around. She composed herself, running a finger through her hair as if she had intended to edit the very beginning out before uploading the final cut. “My name is Vitalie Crawville. I came to this planet long ago, and placed myself in stasis while I waited for the world to be populated. Unfortunately, someone else got to me before the population could. He overpowered me, and put me back in permanently. At least, I think it was supposed to be permanent. Later, probably due to geological activity, my pod was exposed enough to be discovered by the natives. They figured out how to free me, and I explained to them that my purpose here was to be their Caretaker.
“This was a peaceful world. For the most part, they didn’t need me to take care of them. Yet I stayed, and did what I could. It’s not like I had anywhere else to go. This was my only purpose. As it turned out, I was not the only thing that the Leighstens had found. They were a curious bunch, and as it happens, every inhabited world in this sector contains a hidden central computer, regardless of the level of advancement they are allowed to attain. Apparently, the Leighstens were an early experiment to make sure that the seeding process was viable. I have reason to believe that the godking who did this started a couple of similar experiments before he got it right, so you may encounter those during your travels. Once an experiment was over, he would abandon the project, because to him, the survivors were insignificant. We do not contribute to the Empire in any way, not anymore. I suppose we should be glad that we weren’t simply exterminated. Most of the details that would illuminate the full story were encrypted, but the computer was made to receive some news from other worlds, so we were able to keep up with current events.
“Team Matic, I know that you’re the ones watching this. Only you would have been granted access to this file. Out of concern for the Leighstens’ safety, I have made drastic arrangements for their protection. You will not find us, and more importantly, neither will Bronach Oaksent. Do not look into this matter further. I am doing my job. I am taking care of them. It hurts my heart to say that I would not be able to accomplish this if I didn’t keep them away from you. You are...irritants. You shuffle shit up and you make changes. You do it everywhere you go. Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes...you just make things worse. The Exins will retaliate, and that may result in a scorched policy. Honestly, Oaksent is nothing if not unpredictable. We’re not the only ones getting the news feed. They know you’re here now, and each next world will have one year more than the world before to prepare for your arrival. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do whatever it is you’re trying to do, but I can’t let the Leighstens get caught in the line of fire. Please leave now. This pod will self-destruct in five seconds.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Leona assured the team. “The first thing I did was disable the triggering mechanism. We’ll still blow it up, but I know that Ramses likes to scavenge for parts.”
“No,” Vitalie!324 insisted. She turned away. “Destroy it all please.”

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