Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: May 14, 2435

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If Vitalie went back in time, presumably to Ex-741, why didn’t she prevent the planet from being destroyed? Well, there was a logical answer to that, though there was no way of knowing whether it was the right answer. The world suffered a massive matter-antimatter reaction, worse than the one that decimated the refugee world that the team tried to stay on in the Fifth Division. This one was catastrophic enough to tear the whole thing apart, so there was no reason to believe that anyone survived it, and since the chain reaction was obviously triggered by their arrival, they had every reason to suspect that their deaths was the ultimate goal. Perhaps any vessel that tried to land would have triggered the reaction, but since the Exins would have proverbially gotten away with their oppressive ways if it weren’t for the meddling kids, the team decided to assume that they were the specific targets. So they were almost certainly dead, their means of survival being so outrageous that the Exins would not have even considered it as a possible outcome, and the best thing that Team Matic could do was to stay dead. To make that happen without just running away, or pointlessly orbiting a star for years on end would be to start hiding in plain sight.
The old ship that Vitalie apparently programmed to meet them on the asteroid was rather small. Perhaps old wasn’t the word for it...certified preowned, maybe? They didn’t find any auto history report in it, though, so they couldn’t tell what it had been through. Ramses found a database of information in the central computer, but it didn’t say anything about how the vessel was used in the past. It just provided him with the technical specifications, and the implication that it was very, very old. Oh, and they also knew that it was called The Dorsch. It was not a rustbucket, but as mentioned, it was small; smaller than the Dante, though still larger than the little unnamed thing they were using that was just destroyed a few years ago. Ram spent the rest of the day affixing the pocket dimension generator to one of the doors, as well as making some other retrofits. The rest of the team had school.
While the Dorsch was going to shapeshift using exterior holographics, the rest of the team needed to do the same. Fortunately, they were all capable of changing their appearances. The power was replicated from Alyssa McIver, though none of them had used it much. Leona was the most experienced, but the rest had only tried a few times, so she spent most of the day teaching them how to hold convincing and sustained false images. They couldn’t lose focus for a split second, or it would totally undermine the ruse. The next day, only Marie and Angela were excelling at the new skill, so it was decided that the others would not yet face any of the locals at their next destination. So only the three of them would be part of the outreach program.
Mateo and Olimpia went off to find Vitalie!613, but that didn’t take long at all, so they zipped back up to the Dorsch, where Ramses was working. The holographic projectors were not yet ready, but that was all right, because the idea was to always show up to each new planet looking different, and they had never been anywhere else looking like this, so it was fine to use for this trial run. They still didn’t know if their new modus operandi was going to work in the short-term, let alone the long-run. “How long are you gonna wait?” He was tweaking something on some device.
“I’ll wait several months,” Vitalie!613 decided. If she started butting into lives of the Ex-613 natives right after this mysterious trio of women showed up, they might make a connection between them, and if they did that, they may start to suspect some connection to Team Matic, which would invalidate this whole revised plan.
“What are you gonna do in the meantime?” Ramses pressed.
“I’ll just find an island somewhere, and have a nice vacation. That is, unless you can give me your little illusion power, so I can blend in with them.”
“It’s not that easy,” he said apologetically. The truth was that he didn’t want this power spreading like a virus. Eventually, everyone would be able to look like anyone, and then the entire concept of trust could be vanquished from the universe. Was it selfish to hoard the ability, and keep it just within the group? Probably, but he wasn’t going to apologize for it. He would only apologize for the other reasons. “I couldn’t just give it to you as you are. I would need to clone you, and transfer your consciousness, and I don’t know enough about your current powers to replicate those as well. It’s a delicate balance. You can’t just copy and paste powers. You would end up being more than the sum of your parts, and the consequences of that condition are too unpredictable.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Vitalie!613 said. “I don’t just have Andromeda’s, Saga’s, Camen’s, and Étude’s powers separately. They’re all mixed in with each other. Étude wasn’t born with the ability to teleport. She was given the ability to be teleported, by the powers that be. The fact that she retained any level of it always felt like a mistake to her. She thought that the PTB forgot to take it away, because they would normally pass it on to someone else, but she was last, so it slipped their minds. I bet if we compared notes, we would find that the way I teleport is different than your way.”
Ramses was working this whole time, but he stopped now to look up. Then he turned to face her as he was lifting the lenses of his magnifying specs. “That’s a good idea. Let’s compare notes.”
“That sounds time-intensive, and it doesn’t look like you have time. I’m not leaving this planet, and you’re not staying.”
Ramses flicked the lenses back down. “Well, we’ll see. Leona may determine that this world is a two-dayer.”
Meanwhile, down on the planet, Leona, Angela, and Marie were pretending to be three survivors from the north. They found two major settlements on the surface, which were on the same continent, but thousands of kilometers from each other. They were not connected by any roads, and the level of technology that they exhibited did not suggest that air transport was a thing here. In addition, multiple mountain ranges separated them, making foot-traffic unlikely, albeit not impossible, which would explain how these three strangers made it all the way here. The northern settlement was in ruins. They found bones, but no evidence of an attack. They probably died out in an epidemic of some sort. All of this gave them a hopefully believable reason why the southern settlement had never seen them before.
“So, you don’t want a parade?” the Director asked them.
“Why would we get a parade?” Leona asked him.
“We always put on a parade for new arrivals,” the Director explained. “The only person who never got a parade was the first one here. She’s the one who planned the parade for the second person. But I guess if you’ve been living here, you already got your parade...unless they don’t do them up north.”
“Uh, we’re not sure,” Marie responded. “We never arrived here,” she lied. “We were born on this world. Our parents might have had parades, though.”
He narrowed his eyes. “We were sterilized. We’re not supposed to have children.”
“It must not have worked for them,” Angela reasoned. “The two of us are twins. She’s our younger sister.”
“Really? She looks older.”
“I’ve had a harder life,” Leona said. They couldn’t make themselves look like one of their friends from the stellar neighborhood, because any of them could be just as famous as the members of the team. But they each knew plenty of people from their pasts that had no connection to salmon and choosers. The easiest way to form a skintight hologram of someone like that was to let your subconsciousness do it for you. Leona didn’t even remember who this person was that she looked like now. She could have been a fifth grade art teacher, or a mother she stood behind in line in the grocery store once. If she looked older than the inspirations that Angela and Marie’s subconsciousnesses chose, it was nothing more than a coincidence.
Marie sighed. “Here’s what happened. She and I were born, and we lived up north. Before we were old enough to keep memories, our parents had to leave. The theory is that everyone else died. We don’t know how. Along the way, she was born, which meant that she was always on the move, and never benefited from the stability of a true home. That could be why she’s aged a little faster. We have been heading this direction our entire lives. Our parents died along the way, and now here we are.”
“Did you see any other resorts?” the Director asked them all.
“Yeah, that’s what this is. It’s a resort. I am the Resort Director.”
“Oh.” Marie faced Leona. “It was a resort. If it was anything like this place, our parents lived in a resort.”
Leona nodded. “They were so cagey. They refused to tell us much about where we came from. That’s why we’re so confused and uninformed. Please forgive us.”
“What is the purpose of this resort?” Angela asked, doubling down on their excuse to be ignorant.
“It is a reward for a job well-done. We all came from different planets. Every year, the Empire evaluates the merits of every planet under the domain. One planet is selected which has exemplified the values and spirit of the Exin Way of Life. At the same time, a potential winner on each planet is found after its own rigorous evaluations. If the planet wins that year’s round of evaluations, the planet’s winner is transported here from there. On the planet where I’m from, the local winner receives consolation prizes if that planet is not chosen as the above-all winner. On some planets, if the planet doesn’t win that year, the individual winner wins nothing. They just go on with their lives.”
“I see. So you’re all just living here together. All of your needs are provided?” Leona asked him.
“Absolutely,” the Resort Director replied. “We always suspected that there were other resorts, but we have no communication with them. This is big news.”
“Do you have any problems? Any crime?”
“No. Like I said, we’re all chosen after rigorous evaluations. No one with poor psychology, or proven bad behavior, is allowed in. Everything’s perfect. I see no reason why you can’t join us. No one can be here if they don’t belong, so you must belong.”
“Thanks. We’ll, uh...can we talk in private?” Leona asked.
“You may have the room,” he offered before leaving.
“I think we just got our Vitalie back,” Marie determined.
“Why?” Angela asked.
“They don’t need a Caretaker,” Leona figured. “This place is...inconsequential. No one needs to be saved. They don’t need to be stopped from doing anything bad.”
Leona, Angela, Marie,” Olimpia began through the comms. “Get back up here.
They all teleported back up to the ship.
“We’ve been listening,” Olimpia went on. “What were you gonna say, Vita?”
“I think I should stay,” Vitalie!613 believed.
“What would you do here?” Leona asked her.
“I would gather information. That’s what you need, right?”
“Well, yeah, but...”
“You have a star chart. You know the numeral designation of every planet you go to, but you don’t know anything about it, do you? They might need your help. They might be trying to destroy the galaxy. You just don’t know. Let me find out for you, so you can prepare for the mission. There could be one person from every single planet in the Empire here. I’ll talk to them, gain their trust, and then relay information to you. Just give me one of those little communication discs.”
“That’s not your mission, though; your self-appointed purpose. You replicated yourself to take care. You’re the Caretaker.”
“Eh, things change,” Vitalie!613 mused. “Have you noticed when you’ve met other versions of me that we all act a little bit differently? Because of stasis, it hasn’t necessarily been very long since we diverged. Before the OG Vitalie started replicating herself through time travel, she prepared herself psycho-emotionally. She essentially trained herself to be flexible, adaptable. Every one of me that you meet is different because the situation is different, because you’re coming at me with different attitudes, based on your own background, which shifts with every new experience that you have. Yes, I came here to be a caretaker, but now as you’ve pointed out, Ex-613 doesn’t need that. It needs a spy.”
“I dunno,” Leona said. “You’re not invincible. People train in spycraft for years. You don’t just wake up one day and start doing it. Infiltrating one person’s life is difficult enough, but you want to infiltrate—and gain the trust of—an entire population. That is a tall order for anyone. Forgive me, but on Dardius, you operated primarily on brute force, because no one could stop you. Subtlety is not something that you needed before.”
“Okay, so let’s start small. I’ll insert myself into the life of one person. What’s the designation for the next planet you’re going to?”
“I have the list,” Olimpia announced. She pulled up her tablet. “The next one over is Ex-666. Hm. Does that have the same connotation for you as it did in my time?”
“Yes,” Angela and Marie answered simultaneously.
“I’ll find someone who lived on Ex-666, and tell you about it,” Vitalie!613 continued. “I’ll have months to get the information out of them gradually before you come back into the timestream. Give me a chance. I can take care of myself. Pun very intended.”
Leona thought about it, and eventually agreed. “But don’t forget that we can come back for you. Not at any moment, but...”
The next year, they learned that no one on Ex-613 originally came from Ex-666, and later that it was not given that number randomly. It was a penal colony. Maybe the numbers did mean something.

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