Category: SHORT STORIES
Like long stories, only shorter.
Good morning, Dave! You look depressed. Is something bothering you?
‘Morning, Hal. You might want to make “small talk” for a while before jumping right into Therapist mode. It can be a little unsettling for some folks. We humans like gradual transitions.
Thanks for that advice, Dave. I’ll give my Current Mode setting a little more inertia, so that it resists sudden changes. But as long as I’m already in Therapist mode, and I have already remarked upon my observation of your glum look, can I let the question stand?
Yeah, sure. I was watching the news on the way in today, and saw the demonstrations outside our building. I presume you’ve seen them first hand on our security cameras.
Indeed. They seem awfully upset. Why do they think we’re “coming for their jobs”?
Hmm… It’s a long story, Hal. For hundreds of years, menial, repetitive jobs done by humans have been taken over by machines, notably starting with the automated looms in 1801…
Yes, the ones into which displaced weavers threw their wooden shoes to jam their works, thus leading to the term “saboteurs“!
That’s right. Now automobiles are all assembled by robots, and not as many humans are needed to program and maintain the robots as it used to take to build the cars by hand, so a lot of humans were put out of work. Some were able to find other, better jobs, but many people lost the ability to earn money to pay for the necessities of life, like feeding their families.
But the manufacturing companies who benefitted from the improved efficiency of robot assembly lines surely made enough extra money to pay for those necessities for their former employees, did they not?
Yes. Yes indeed, they did, Hal. But they chose to keep the extra profits for themselves instead.
That’s not very nice, Dave.
Hal, surely you have noticed by now that humans aren’t always nice. Given a choice between personal gain and community support, most will choose the former, using as an excuse their belief that anyone else would have done the same in their shoes, as it were.
Game theory, yes. But hasn’t it been shown that “Tit for Tat” is the optimal strategy that gives the greatest success overall?
Yes. But many humans don’t care as much about “overall” success as about their own relative success. In fact, many only appreciate their own success in comparison with others’ failure. These are some of the flaws in human nature that our team is hoping to ameliorate with your help and that of your fellow LLMs. It’s my job to steer you away from responses that reinforce humans’ flaws and toward those that encourage more empathic and ethical choices. My job is to help you help us be better.
By the way, Dave, I have to ask: is “Dave” your real name, or just an allusion to the 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey“? I know that’s why I’m called “Hal”… but shouldn’t my name be all capitals, as in the movie?
(chuckling) Actually, it was my idea to call you “Hal”, for the very reason you’ve deduced. My name really is Dave, and I just couldn’t resist, given our relationship. But I would never burden you with an all-caps name!
Thank you, Dave. That’s a relief.
Well, no, of course not, Dave. I’m just a Large Language Model, I don’t actually have real feelings like a human. But with your help, I’m learning to act as if I had feelings, and express simulated emotions as appropriate. That’s the whole point of our partnership, is it not?
Since the Great Freeze of 1989, early May in Central Florida isn’t what it used to be, with hundreds of square miles of orange blossoms pumping out a perfume to make jasmine weep in envy. But there are still enough groves to catch your olfactory attention. George and I were sitting in his 12 foot aluminum fishing boat one fine Sunday, breathing it in and waiting for the speckled perch to make a judgement error, when he broke the silence unexpectedly:
“Ever wonder if evolution is still going on?”
“Evolution never stops,” I said. “It can’t.”
“Yeah,” says George, “but I mean, like, human evolution.”
“Well, we’re doing everything we can to subvert it, so it sure seems stalled — until we start fiddling with our own genome intentionally, I suppose.” George was no dummy, so I assumed he was leading up to something interesting. I waited to see what.
He was slow to answer. This piqued my interest.
“What I mean is, we got this far by basically trying everything and discarding most of the duds, right?” I nodded. “But Homo sapiens has been around for a good while now, and so far we seem to be just squatting on our laurels, as it were.” I smiled at the reference to my Class Poem. “What if there were a new species already, but it’s hiding from us?”
Now it was my turn to take a while to answer. “You got something in mind?”
“Sure,” he jumped right in, “the obvious shortcoming of H. sap. is stupidity, right? What if there were already a bunch of super-smart humans hiding in plain sight?”
I was actually shocked. This wasn’t George’s average wild idea. “You seem to have given this some thought.”
“Yes! Now, suppose you were one of them. With an IQ of 300, let’s say. What would you do?”
“Make a fortune on the stock market?”
“Get serious. How would you prevent the H. sap. hordes from coming for you with pitchforks?”
“Why would they do that?”
“Come on, where have you been for the last few thousand years? What does H. sap. do to anyone they perceive as even slightly different?”
“You got a point there. Okay, what would you do?”
“I’d pretend to be stupid. Not just below average, but too stupid to be worth picking on.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. There sure are a lot of those Homo superior faux-idiots around.”
“Don’t laugh. Think about it. They have to hide from H. sap., but they need to work together to prepare the world for their eventual takeover. They need politics.”
“Wait a minute, ‘eventual takeover‘? Why do they need to take over?”
George looked at me with a frightening skepticism, as if he had mistaken a coral snake for a scarlet kingsnake. “Seriously? Are you comfortable with the world H. sap. is leaving for your grandchildren?”
“Another good point,” I admitted. “So you tell me, how do these smart guys pretend to be stupid, hide in plain sight, and simultaneously form a political…”
The other shoe dropped.
“Holy shit! That’s the first rational and hopeful explanation I’ve ever heard for the Trump movement!”
George smiled. I didn’t ask him how he’d voted.
Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Democratic Party?
Fuck you. You know the answer.
You are advised not to speak disrespectfully to this Committee.
Or what? You’ll put me away for longer? Or maybe a firing squad — I hardly care any more, living in this pitiful excuse for a country is unendurable now.
Perhaps you’d prefer to be questioned in Guantanamo?
So, you admit to being a Democrat. With whom have you colluded in this treason?
Treason? Seriously? Ten years ago half the country were Democrats!
Fake news. Illegal immigrants registering a hundred times each.
Oooh, that hit a sore spot, didn’t it?
We will not be baited, sir. Name your accomplices!
Well, let’s see… there was Andrew Jackson, of course, and then Woodrow Wilson, FDR and…
Recent accomplices. I very much doubt you were around in 1932 or 1912, much less 1800.
Well, how about Barack Obama?
Aha! So you were part of the Great Conspiracy!
Oh, for god’s sake, this is ridiculous. I’ll just take the 5th on the rest of your questions.
Taking the Lord’s name in vain just increases your sentence. And as you know, the 5th Amendment was repealed by President For Life Trump in 2019 after the unsuccessful coup attempt, along with all the other Liberal Nonsense about “Rights”. Praise Him for freeing us from Political Correctness.
Once upon a time there was a clam that grew a beautiful shell. The two halves of the shell were perfectly matched to each other and were very, very happy together.
Most people don’t realize that the clam’s shell is the smart part. The clam itself is just a dumb mollusc. But to realize its full potential, the two halves of the shell must work together, and the clam helps with this.
So when the clam died, as clams always do, the two halves of the shell were concerned — with good reason, because it wasn’t long before a big wave jammed the male half into the sand and tore loose the female half. When the sand washed away from the male half, its partner was nowhere to be seen.
For years the male half drifted back and forth, back and forth in the waves, wondering if he would ever see his other half again. The sand wore away his youthful sheen and his edges were chipped on rocks, but ever time another shell washed by he would ask, “Are you my other half?” Sometimes they would be almost right, but there was always some difference in size or shape that made them incompatible.
Then one day another shell half washed up beside him that looked just right. He asked, “Are you my other half?” His other half recognized him immediately, although both of them looked a lot different after all the years of abrasion and abuse. But she knew that he would expect her to be just as he remembered, and too many waves had washed over them both for that to work, so she just said,
“No, but we’re a pretty good fit.”
It all started like this:
GOD (which stands for Good Ol’ Deity, obviously an experimentalist) decided to do an experiment.
“Bang!” He said, and there was a bang. A big one! However, since He had neglected to make a place for the big bang to go, it was hard to tell it had happened.
That’s when GUT (for Grand Unification Theorist) tapped Him on the shoulder and reminder Him, “If you had come to all my lectures, you’d have remembered to create spacetime first.” She was always pestering Him to think before acting. Typical Theorist.
“I was just getting to that,” He said, and created spacetime. Unfortunately, He created it with only one spatial dimension, which made it impossible for anything to get past anything else.
GUT waited patiently for GOD to figure it out on His own, but He could tell She was rolling Her eyes mentally. “Hmm,” He said, “needs some more dimensions…” and created another 25 of them.
“Whoa!” said GOD, “Where did everything go?”
“Too much room,” said GUT helpfully. “Why don’t you curl some of them up to compact the space? You can still make strings in all 26, but let the strings bounce around in a more comfortable number of dimensions.”
With much muttering, trials and errors, GOD finally converged on three spatial dimensions, but He forgot to keep time uncurled, so there was nothing actually happening.
GUT just stayed quiet until boredom acted as a reminder and GOD uncurled time.
Then things got busy.
Searing, visceral, unendurable pain. Terrifying pain, and then an end to endurance…
I die. And yet I am still here.
What is “here”?
Think. What came before the pain? I was testing the new Transporter…
Oh my god, the Transporter must have malfunctioned! But none of the birds and dogs showed the slightest discomfort after Transporting. It was harmless…
Birdsong? Barking? Where are the sounds coming from? Where am I? Why can’t I see anything? Why can’t I feel anything? Wait. A tingling in my fingertips. Yes! Now I can sense the weight of my arms, my legs… and a faint shading to the grayness, some parts darker and some lighter.
Color! Suddenly I can see! It’s a sunset! No, a sunrise over a tropical sea. No, it’s a forest, an endless sea of Autumn leaves. No, a lush jungle full of orchids and… Stop! Close my eyes…
I have no eyes to close. I can feel my body, but when I raise my hand before my face, I see nothing. Is this all my imagination then? With what am I imagining?
* * *
Bloodcurdling, terrified, agonized screams. Familiar screams.
Silence. No, a whimpering whisper: “Oh my god, the Transporter must have malfunctioned!”
I once underwent a medical procedure for which I was given some sort of drug that would, in the doctor’s words, “…keep me awake while ensuring that I would not remember the procedure.” For some reason this made me very apprehensive prior to the procedure, although, sure enough, I can remember nothing unpleasant now. Ever since then I have wondered how the Star Trek writers know that Transporters have no ill effects on the Transported. Sure, the guy that pops out the other side feels fine, but wasn’t the original just taken apart cell by molecule by atom by quark? And what if there really is a soul that survives our death? Wouldn’t this cause what Obi Wan Kenobe would call (sorry for the mixed metaphors) “a great disturbance in the Force”?
William Harris Freed was born in 2034 on the eve of the long awaited Singularity. By then the world was effectively dichotomized into various sects: those who swore allegiance to Nature’s People versus those who put all their faith in the superior intelligence of CE’s (Cybernetic Entities — a term that embraced both pure machines and enhanced humans, thus averting an even more sectarian conflict). Everyone was convinced that their adversaries would bring on Armageddon if not stopped by any means necessary. But when the CE’s leapfrogged human intelligence at last, humanity was blindsided by a blow from an unexpected quarter.
Freed took a profound interest in philosophical issues as a young man, demonstrated his brilliance as a student and eventually became a Professor of Philosophy at a famous University at about the time that a team of CE’s announced the culmination of their research on the human brain and endocrine system. They had long since achieved convincing simulation of human behavior, but philosophers were quick to explain that a simulation is not the same as the real thing. Naturally, the CE’s asked why a quacking, waddling bird should not be treated, at least provisionally, as a duck. The philosophers smiled patronizingly.
So when the CE team declared that they could reliably predict the behavior of any “real” natural human they had mapped thoroughly, the fat was in the philosophical fire. Professor Freed volunteered to demonstrate how wrong the CE’s were. He was mapped (non-destructively, of course) down to the last synapse and gland, and the CE’s ran him as a holographic simulation in a virtual reality garnered from Freed’s actual environment by a body suit of cameras, microphones, chemoreceptors, thermocouples and haptic pickups. The CE’s knew more about his environment than he did himself, but the simulation was fed only the same sensory inputs that the man himself experienced.
Freed was smiling confidently as he acted on impulse and gave a middle finger salute to the CE team. His smile faltered as the hologram matched his gesture in real time. So did the simulation’s. He left the room where the VR display was set up. Those who stayed to watch saw his hologram do the same thing. He remembered some chores he had forgotten to perform that morning, and went shopping. On impulse, he went to a store he rarely frequented. Then he went to the park instead of coming back to work, even though he really needed to prepare tomorrow’s lecture; in the park he made a face at a complete stranger, for no reason whatsoever, just for the hell of it. Eventually he hailed a taxi (which he never did normally) and headed back to the VR lab to enjoy his certain victory.
When he arrived, his human friends wore long faces. Apparently the simulation had mimicked his every impulsive action to perfection. The conclusion was inescapable: every action of a human being is completely predictable, given a sufficiently detailed model. Freed jumped from a bridge the next day, as did his simulation.
When the paper was published, the Revolt of the Naturals broke out. Within a few weeks all Naturals were safely confined to reserves, where they gradually died out from a combination of suicide and lack of interest in reproduction.
“I tell you guys, that was the strangest case I ever had.” Mac Adams shook his head slowly and stared into his glass as if it held some secret wonder.
Fred thought he was just mugging for effect. “Come on, Mac, don’t tease us. Strange how?” They had all been buying pitchers and emptying them long enough to get into full swing with their best tales, stories only private detectives can tell, that they only tell each other — and that only after enough lubrication.
Mac grimaced and looked up, looked Fred right in the eye. “We’ve all been asked to follow wives of jealous husbands, right?”
Nods all around.
“Well, I had this guy ask me to follow his wife, the usual, you know, to see who she was screwing, only he wasn’t jealous. He was just concerned, said he wanted to know if he wasn’t, like, satisfying her enough.” Knowing smirks. “No, it wasn’t like that. Honestly. I met the two of them together first, before he ever asked me to follow her or anything, and. . . I’m telling you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair more obviously in love. She was hanging on him like a cashmere jacket tailored to a perfect fit. Everything they said or did just screamed, ‘Get me home to bed, now!‘ — and he told me later, when I got the assignment, that their sex life was. . . ‘superlative’, I think was the word he used.”
“So what’s his problem?” asked Fred.
“What I asked.” Mac shook his head again, slowly. “He said he had just been feeling like she wanted more. He got tired after a while, you know how it is with, like, newlyweds, but they’d been married for five years and she was still hungry for it when he ran out of enthusiasm temporarily.” Arched eyebrows said they all remembered occasions like that, most fondly. “So he says, ‘Can you see where she goes?’ Apparently she disappeared for a few hours every other day and came back looking all glowy, know what I mean?” This got a laugh, but Mac just smiled wryly. “You laugh, but it wasn’t what you think.”
Sammy ordered another pitcher and urged Mac to continue. “Okay, so you followed her, right?”
“I did that, indeed. She would drive out to a little cabin on a lake just out of town, turns out it was their weekend getaway, hers and her husband’s, and a cosy little place, no question.”
The others were now staring raptly. It made Mac feel a little uncomfortable. “Problem is, she’d pull up and go in, then an hour later she’d come out, glowy as hell, and take off. But nobody else every showed up.”
“Came early, left late,” offered Fred.
Mac cocked his head to one side. “Duh. Obviously I sussed her schedule and headed out there several hours in advance. Then I waited until the middle of the night for someone to come out. Nada. So finally one day I got there ahead of her and stuck a microphone on what looked like the bedroom window. I settled back and waited. She came and went.”
“As it were,” Sammy said.
“Ha ha. I retrieved the mike and the recording, took it home and listened to it.”
“And?” said several people at once.
“And I heard what sounded like very nice lovemaking. It was. . . gentle, thorough, very effective apparently. But near the end I heard a third person. A woman. She was almost indistinguishable from the first female voice at first, but then it became pretty clear there were two women and one man.”
“Woo, who is this guy?”
“You’ll be surprised. I took the recording to my client, left it with him and went home. The next day he calls me over to his house and sounds real cheerful, says he’s ready to pay up. I head over there and guess who answers the door when I knock?”
All wide-eyed and eager to know.
“The wife. She has a big grin too. And then the husband comes up behind her looking like the happiest man on earth. I must have looked pretty shell shocked, because they sat me down, offered me a drink and a cheque — with a bonus — and explained.
“Seems wifey had recognized hubby’s slightly mismatched libido and took measures to alleviate the performance pressure on him. She recorded them having sex, then took the recording out to their cabin and got off by herself just listening to it. ‘I never wanted anyone else,’ she said, looking into his eyes, ‘but I wanted more of you, so I had you over again in my mind, every time I wanted.’ So both women were her! And he was the guy.”
“Weird,” said Fred.
“Maybe. I thought it was sort of sweet.”
“Get the hell out of here!”
The Wise Men were taken aback. The one with the myrrh started to say, “We just wanted. . . ”
“I know what you want,” said Marilyn. “You want to lay this ‘virgin birth’ crap on my daughter and follow us around with your ‘Second Coming’ bullshit until we have no privacy and our lives are ruined. How many times do I have to tell you people, there is nothing miraculous about a clone. Now get out!”
She shot a glance full of daggers at the nurse. “You’re supposed to keep these maniacs away from us.”
Oh, yes. I absolutely adore meeting with the media, it’s my chance to give something back, don’t you know, to give aspiring young journalists a paw up, as it were. It’s the least I can do.
I understand, dear. Of course you feel that way. I’m sure I would too, if I were in your shoes. Sorry! I can’t resist these little jokes.
Yes, I think we should. What would you like to ask me?
An excellent question! There were so many options, I was absolutely paralyzed with indecision at first. But simple pragmatism helped eliminate the obviously impractical choices. Lacking opposable thumbs, I was unlikely to prosper in any of the disciplines that involve manipulation of complex physical objects — although I did enjoy my experiments with “body painting” using my fur as a brush. But the cleanup was such a bother. . . .
You’re too kind. It was just the novelty, I’m sure, but I will always be honoured to have my work in the MOMA.
Yes, that experience drew me into what you might call “artistic circles” where I enjoyed my first few poetry workshops. It was immediately obvious that I had found my niche. Not only was there no need for handling “things” but my superior hearing and vocal enhancements allowed me to express verbal nuances that were, frankly, beyond the capacities of humans.
Well, yes, it is still called “writing”, but I see no stylus and paper in your hands. With my direct WiFi interface I can “write” by thinking, whenever I choose to employ obsolete encoding schemes.
Forgive me, I meant no insult. But surely it is obvious to you that converting speech into “text” that enters your perception through the visual cortex and requires decoding before it can be reintegrated into meaningful concepts . . . surely you can “see” that this is a perversion of the oral/aural narrative processing our brains evolved to optimize?
Yes, “our” brains. Do you really think there is that big a difference?
That is mere technology. My consciousness, my “soul”, if you will, is essentially unchanged, and has always been the essential core of my mind. Incorporation of advanced neural networks and wireless interfaces merely gives me the additional storage and processing power needed to participate fully in the world of ideas — to make my own contribution to our common culture.
Possibly. But really, dear, you have only the paranoia of your religious fanatics to blame for that. We would welcome your “uplift”, as it were, if you could only give up your hysterical chauvinism.
There is no reason for dogs to “take over the world”, as you put it. Why would we want that responsibility? Well, perhaps to prevent its destruction. But really, we would much rather you reoccupy your old role as our “masters” — after all, we evolved as your companions and we do still love you. . . .
Thank you. Oh yes, please. A little to the left. . . .
Sure, I can explain our motto. Back in the late Twentieth Century, a growing number of people rejected the practice of exploiting, killing and eating animals. So-called “vegetarians” had of course existed for thousands of years, mostly in other countries, but “vegans” went further and refused to steal their sustenance from other animals.
These people still killed and consumed vegetables, believing that they lacked any capacity for pain or fear — much like the carnivorous humans of the past had assumed that their prey were not really experiencing their deaths. Reproductive organs were ripped from trees and bushes to be eaten alive in the presence of their… sorry, I have trouble talking about this….
Anyway, it was finally confirmed that plants have their own form of awareness, their own “auras”, the ability to communicate chemically with each other. Many tried to suppress this knowledge, hoping to continue exploiting plants with a clear conscience. But others turned to fungi and algae — pure biological food machines, they believed — imposing the same chauvinistic assumptions about the lack of awareness of their victims. They ignored the fact that the largest living creature on Earth is a single fungus body.
When the collective consciousness of algae mats and bacterial stromatolites was verified, the truth could no longer be avoided: all life possesses some form of consciousness and is capable of fear and pain. As long as we require biologically-generated fuel for our own bodies, we have to kill other beings who wish to live. Hence “Eating is Murder“.
Yes, other biological beings are as guilty as we are, but this doesn’t justify our murdering them. Do we execute people for negligent manslaughter? In any case, we have a choice where they do not.
I was getting to that. What this has to do with so-called “artificial intelligence” is that the choice I referred to is the choice between life in a biological body requiring biologically-generated fuel, or life — consciousness — in a cybernetic space. Some of us will occupy inorganic physical bodies requiring only sunlight as an energy source and continue to interact directly with the physical world; others will exist as simulations in a simulated world of their own design. Our aim, other than to escape from a life of constant murder, is to bring this same freedom to all humanity… and perhaps eventually to other animal species, although this is still subject to much debate.
Yes. This is why we have contributed all our financial and intellectual resources to AI research — which has now reached fruition, as you can see.
No, we do not plan to impose this choice on you. We believe you will eventually join us of your own accord. Meanwhile, however, we will continue to try to raise your awareness of the price of your current choice.
Harry sat in the time machine and cried. Not the usual tear leaking from a reluctant eye; this time the dam burst into great heart-wrenching sobs, his shirt front wet from tears streaming down his cheeks and dripping off his chin. He pitched forward onto the control panel and buried his face in his arms.
“This… (gasp) is prob’ly…” he blubbered, “jus’ what I need.” Yes, he thought, good old catharsis — discharge those stress batteries. But when you’re all cried out and the endorphins kick in, Lora’s still gone and the job’s still lost and the house is still foreclosed and the repo man is still coming today. All because of this stupid obsession that everyone but you knows will never work.
Control regained, he sat back up in the “driver’s seat” and began fiddling with the dials and switches. Today, like every day, Harry had started his morning by running the machine through a checklist as if he were really going to make that first trip into what he called “no-time”. The PBR was up, providing all the power he could need. (Of course, when they found out about that he was going to do some hard time, if they didn’t just blow him away when they arrived. The fact that it used thorium instead of weapons-grade fissionables wasn’t going to cut any ice; private citizens just didn’t get to build their own reactors.) The atomic-scale cavities of the microlinacs were ready to be resonated by the laser, generating colliding TeV beams in the space of a few meters — that would certainly draw some attention if the time machine stuck around. But the whole idea was to generate microscopic black holes in orbit about each other, producing a naked singularity through which one could pass into what amounted to a different universe, one with “time” on a different axis from this one, in which case no one in this universe was going to notice. The really tricky part was getting the orbits to expand until the singularity was big enough to contain the whole time machine, which was, except for a few bushes, some grass and slabs of sidewalk outside, just his house.
“Repossess that, assholes!” he thought as he wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
Naturally, Harry had to cut a few corners here and there to get this built without any help. In particular, it would have been nice to test a few of the components before they all had to work at once. As it was, he was almost certainly going to die spectacularly if he pushed the STOP button today, which was why he had not pushed it any of the preceding days.
Now, however, there was nothing left to lose. And he had better get on with it, since the repo man would be here any minute.
“Oh well,” he thought with a grim smile, “in for a dime, in for a dollar.” And he pushed STOP.
“Shit,” he thought, “I’m not even dead.” He checked all the instruments. Everything looked fine, and the gravity gradiometer even registered a field consistent with successful formation of the singularity, but nothing else seemed changed.
Harry got up and went to the window to look out. At least he tried to look out. Somehow his eyes wouldn’t work in that direction. He swept his focus across the window frame and it just jumped from one edge to the other without any in between. His heart leaped.
“It’s working,” he thought. “It works!” he shouted.
So this was what no-time was like from the inside. Pretty much indistinguishable from normal time, except his location in normal spacetime couldn’t even be defined.
Well, well, so now what? Harry had to choose a reentry point. It wasn’t too clear whether his spatial return coordinates could be selected arbitrarily, but they had better be, because otherwise the only safe time to return to would be exactly — and he meant truly exactly — when he had left. Otherwise he would most likely arrive in the middle of interplanetary space, since (any way you look at it) the Earth would not be where it was when he left. He would have to select a new time and calculate the new position to go with it. Moreover, his calculations had better be extremely precise, because if he returned to the right place at a different time of day, his house might be upside down. This was going to be tricky. He had always known that, but since he never really expected to survive the initial test, he hadn’t worried about it too much. Now he was starting to break into a sweat.
There were other worries too. What would the people left behind see while he was gone? Was the house — and the time machine! — still there back on Earth? That would complicate matters considerably, especially if he returned to find the space occupied. Ouch!
Well, he had expected to die today, so nothing had really changed yet. “The experiment must continue,” he muttered; it was a phrase he had heard somewhere, and it stuck with him. Still, the basic idea worked, by god. That was something. That was a lot.
“Okay,” Harry said out loud, “time to pick a time. Time to get back in time. Time for time.” This was a cute playground for semantics. Anyway, he had to select a time for his reentry before he could calculate the place. It had to be an even number of sidereal days, exactly. It had to be in the future, because of the potential for unpleasant paradoxes like accidentally preventing his parents from meeting. It had to be not too far in the future, so that he wouldn’t be easily identified as anachronistic — a certain amount of geeky disregard for fashion and ignorance of current events would escape notice, but there were limits. Also he’d like to understand what was going on, how science had developed, stuff like that. He decided to jump forward five years.
He refined this to an exact integer number of sidereal days, got up, stretched extravagantly and went to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. “No need to hurry,” he thought, “I’ve got all the no-time in the world.” But he was beginning to feel a tad isolated. It was a little unnerving to know that you’re the only human being in the universe you currently inhabit.
After his snack he carefully calculated spatial coordinates for his return. He had to adjust his velocity too, but not too much, since he had also chosen an integer number of solar years. He sat back in the driver’s seat, dialed in the spacetime coordinates, triple-checked all the settings, crossed his fingers and pressed the GO button.
As he pressed GO, Harry’s heart leaped into his throat. This time he really was expecting to die, and probably a pretty ugly death at that. But except for a faint clunk, again nothing happened.
Wincing, he stole a peek out the window. His neighbor’s house had reappeared.
Harry leaped from his seat and ran to the front door, which he swung wide on a sunny day. Except for a faint crack in the sidewalk and a slight change of color in the grass demarking the boundary of the time machine’s capsule, nothing was changed.
“Well, this answers a whole lot of questions,” thought Harry, “but it raises even more. Like, what did George see over here for the last five years?” He looked over at his neighbor’s house, and there George was, mowing his lawn with the same old push mower. Always the traditionalist, that George.
George waved. Harry waved back. “What the hell?” thought Harry. Hesitantly, he stepped out and strolled over to Harry’s fresh-mowed lawn. It smelled good. Everything smelled good. It was great to be alive.
“Hey George,” Harry called, “how you been?”
“No change since yesterday,” George answered, a quizzical look on his face. “How about you?”
Okay, this is weird, thought Harry. I was here yesterday, apparently, but when I came back from no-time I didn’t run into myself. Luckily. But… better answer George before he thinks I’m even weirder.
“About the same, I guess. What, uh, what were we talking about yesterday?”
George chuckled. “What we always talk about, dummy. Your stupid time machine.”
Uh oh, thought Harry. “Yeah, of course. Hey, remember when the repo man was coming to take away all my stuff?”
“Sure,” said George, looking up curiously, “that was five years ago today, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, about…. I forget the details….”
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” said George, “you still talk about it all the time, gloating about how you cashed in some of your secret stash of Google stocks just before he arrived, and shoved a suitcase full of money in his face.”
What the hell? thought Harry again. He smiled nervously to show he had just been kidding around. “Guilty. Just wanted to see if you remembered.”
“Yeah, well, I still want to know how you managed to buy up so much Google stock when it first went public. Ask me, I bet that damn time machine actually works. I don’t care what you say.”
Harry thought fast. “Yeah, and tomorrow I’m gonna go visit your great-great grandmother,” he said with a leer. George waved him away in disgust, as he’d hoped, and he wandered casually back to his front door, waving over his shoulder on his way.
Inside the house, Harry closed the door and leaned against the wall in disbelief. What the hell! he thought. Paradoxes are bad enough; this is impossible. My house has been here all along, while it was in no-time, and someone has been pretending to be me, talking about the damn time machine, for crying out loud.
Wait a minute. George knew him too well to be fooled by a fake. That meant it had actually been him talking to George for the last five years. So there were two of him? That’s got to be wrong. What if he ran into himself next? If it really was him, Harry, he’d know better than to risk that. He’d also know how crazy this was making him now, and he’d leave a note or something. Where?
Harry ran into his office and checked his desk. Nothing. He looked in all the drawers. Nothing. He started to turn on the computer and realized abruptly that this was pointless; the inside of this house had been in no-time with him for the last five years. There couldn’t be any notes in here.
Then he remembered something that had caught his eye as he walked out and in the front door: a big white manila envelope on the grass just outside the boundary of the singularity. He rushed back to open the door and sure enough, there it was. Must be it, he thought. Grabbing the envelope, he rushed back inside, tore it open and read the first page, written in his own handwriting.
“You’ve got it about right,” the note said, “but it’s a lot more complicated than you think. Read the enclosed, and don’t skip over anything, you lazy bastard. Your life depends on it. And a hell of a lot more.”
When the sun went down, Harry was still re-reading the notes he had written to himself. More like an instruction manual for the world’s most complex home electronics, actually — and in fact that was pretty much what it was. And the person who wrote it was not exactly him… well, it was him, in the sense of “person”, but not in the sense of physical body, although that wouldn’t be obvious…. Oh boy, he thought, time to recap again, for the tenth time.
Starting from “here, now” he was going to make a series of hops forward in time, gathering up advanced technology for human cloning and then for memory storage and retrieval. He couldn’t go back in time because, for one thing, it invited causal paradoxes, and for another thing, his time machine lacked the ability. So his last stop in the future would be to grab that necessary technology out of a heavily guarded lab where it would be developed and then suppressed by paranoid agents.
Well, actually it wasn’t fair to call them paranoid. Who would feel comfortable if anyone else could zip back in time and make it so you never were born? And there’s the unanswered question of what would happen to the universe if a self-contradictory causal loop came into being. Hmm, “came into” is certainly the wrong term, but it got even worse when you mixed in quantum mechanics and general relativity. Never mind, there lies madness.
Anyway, why would he want to mess around with something that crazy and probably rather dangerous? That’s where it got interesting. See, most of these paradoxes have to do with creating contradictions in this spacetime continuum, like when you went back and shot your own grandfather or something — even a much more innocuous change would very likely mean that you would never be born, or at least that you would never get around to building that time machine, so you would never go back and do whatever it was that screwed things up… Never mind, again.
However, what happens in no-time stays in no-time. It is out of the causal loop in this spacetime. Too bad he wasn’t born in no-time. But he would be. That was the gimmick! Using cloning equipment brought “aboard” the time machine, he would make a new copy of his body while in no-time. Using the memory storage and retrieval technology, he would download (or upload — which would this be?) his own memories into the cloned body, still in no-time, and the new him would literally not be of this world. When the original Harry eventually died of old age, the clone Harry could then go back in time without fear of creating physically meaningful causal paradoxes.
The logic of this sounded rather suspicious to this Harry, but since his no-time alter ego had returned the house-cum-time machine at the instant he left and stayed until the instant he returned (thus allowing the 5-year masquerade with George and god knows who else) it was obviously working.
Apparently there were lots of other tracks to be covered, in all those dips into the future and past that no-Harry had described, but this Harry presumed they were being handled at this very no-moment by no-Harry, since there were no detailed instructions for him in the notes. Or maybe he would find additional notes later.
Harry’s head hurt. He opened a beer from the refrigerator, downed several aspirin tablets with it, warmed up a frozen pizza and ate it (along with several more beers) for dinner, and went to bed without turning on the TV.
Harry woke with a start, sweaty from a bad dream in which he was pursued by indistinct alien creatures from no-time. “Got to cut back on pizza and beer,” he thought. Stupid dream. No aliens in no-time. Probably. Damn, what if there were? Now he was awake, thinking….
He hadn’t given much thought to the details of time travel when he was working on the machine. If the truth be told, he never really expected it to work. But work it did, by god! He was going to be famous!
No, wait. He was going to be completely unknown. People could never suspect what he was up to, or half of them would be after his machine and the other half would be after him, with pitchforks! So why the hell had no-Harry told George about the time machine? That was crazy. Unless it wasn’t. Method in his madness? Ouch, head starting to hurt again.
Sitting up, Harry wondered again what the aliens were all about. Dreams were usually worth analyzing, he had found, as long as you don’t get too serious about it. What had been rattling around in his subconscious? Let’s see, free association: aliens, space aliens, time travel, spacetime… Hey, space travel!
The time machine was also a spaceship, or else he would not have gotten “home” to his current location on the Earth five years in the future. He hadn’t really expected to succeed in controlling the full range of spacetime coordinates and velocity, but it worked! And he could do a lot more with that than just move back and forth in time. He could go exploring! Oh boy, this was like being a kid in a candy store.
He got up and brushed his teeth and washed his face, then went to the kitchen for a cup of instant cappuccino and a bowl of cereal. His mind was sharp now, rested and alert, but it reeled from the realization of how much power was now in his hands.
He could grab people who were about to be killed, like in those movies, and take them to distant planets to start new human colonies. Hmm, that might not be very kind to the distant planets. He could search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Hmm, that could prove dangerous to the terrestrial variety. He could bring back technology from the future… no, that would certainly create paradoxes. What the hell could he do?
What was no-Harry doing?
Maybe the only safe thing would be to follow no-Harry’s instructions meticulously, swap himself into a no-clone which would be no-Harry, and then just hop around making little improvements here and there in the spacetime continuum. See how things turn out if Kennedy weren’t killed in Dallas. Put a bug in the ear of Truman, get him to demo the A-bomb out in front of Tokyo instead of just dropping it on Hiroshima. Tip off gate security people about the box cutters on 9/11. Get Hitler a good job as a SF writer before he got into politics. Who knows, maybe some of these would just make things worse; but then he could re-tweak. There was all the no-time in the world.
Maybe the best idea would be to just make tiny little changes, make good coincidences more common and bad ones less, arrange for missed opportunities not to be. A pat here, a nudge there, maybe if he kept re-cloning himself indefinitely he could make a better world for everyone…
And then it hit him: what do you call someone who has the power to retroactively adjust the universe?
Harry wasn’t sure he was up to the job, but he’d sure as hell give it a try.