Shells

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."

GOD & GUT

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 22 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 23, 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.

Transported

Pain!

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?

* * *

Screams!

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"?

Will Freed

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.

The Lover

"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."

Jessica (a story in less than 100 words)

"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."

Virginia Woof

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. . . .

Eating is Murder

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.

No Time

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.

 

Nothing happened.

"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.

History of the World As We Know It

Chapter 1: Bang

Once upon a time there was a big bang.  Then stuff happened in a hurry. Later, stuff happened more slowly, but it kept happening for a long time. Eventually the stuff became heavier and stuck together to form stars and planets. One planet had a lot of water and organic compounds.

 

Chapter 2: Squish

After quite a while, the organic compounds on this planet made a bunch of autocatalytic sets in the water.  These sets exhibited a stable regenerative pattern called life.  After quite another while, there were lots of types of life.

 

Chapter 3: Aha

Æons later, between extinction events, a clever ape species developed a hereditary neurological disorder called sapience.  The species was eventually named after the disorder.

 

Chapter 4: Eden

One day the First Man said, "This world is too hostile.  Everything wants to bite me or sting me or eat me.  It rains when I don't want it to and doesn't rain when I do want it to.  It's too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.  I wish I could have an easier time getting everything I want when I want it."

The First Woman said, "Man, you can't appreciate this beautiful world unless you accept the way things are. Sometimes you eat, sometimes you're food. Get used to it."

The First Priest thought to himself, "Hmm..." and said, "Don't listen to Her, Man, it is right and proper for you to have Dominion over the Beasts. It is your Destiny. God ordains it."

"Who is God?" asked the First Man.

The First Priest said, "Come with me, and I'll explain."

 

Chapter 5: Civilisation

A few thousand years later, Man had achieved Dominion over the Beasts (mainly by killing them all) and control of His environment (mainly by turning it into asphalt and concrete). His fellow Men, however, did their best to kill Him and take His possessions, mainly because the Priests said they should. It was still too hot or too cold by turns and the rain and wind still came at inconvenient times. He still had a hard time getting what He wanted when He wanted it, mainly because He wanted silly things because other Men wanted them. He yearned for the Good Old Days when life was simpler and all He had to worry about was finding food and not being eaten.

 

Chapter 6: Bang

Pretty soon Man arranged His own extinction event.

 

Transported

Pain!

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?

Screams!

Bloodcurdling, terrified, agonized screams. Familiar screams.

Silence. No, a whimpering whisper, "Oh my god, the Transporter must have malfunctioned!"

 

__________________________________________

 

Background:

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"?

Steelhead!

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, please. You can continue this discussion later if you see fit, but don't you think it would help us to know the whole story first?"

Murmurs of protest.

"No, no, we all know the facts; I submit that they are hardly relevant. What matters is not so much what happened as what we have recorded. Remember, for the audience tat will be reality. Let's get on with the screening now and make our decision later."

The dozen or so people in the projection room milled and muttered briefly, then began to move toward their seats.

"The Director is right," said an ambitious Assistant Producer. "We have to base our choice on audience impact, not on our own privileged information." He sat down, chin jutting in response to the ironic glances of his colleagues, as the lights dimmed and the hologram flickered into life.

The Director surveyed their faces cautiously in the reflected light, then turned to watch the opening scene.

 

The Fisherman shifted his pack higher on his back, sucked in his gut, and tightened the belt strap. He had made this adjustment half a dozen times since breakfast, and was not sure if the belt was slipping or stretching as it soaked up his sweat. Sometimes he cultivated the illusion that he was actually getting thinner. Anyway, the ritual always made his pack seem lighter. Competitive backpacking was not the same, he thought; there was always the clock to beat, the pace to keep up, the other packers. It was easy to get into. On his own, with all the time in the world, he was continuously distracted by the minor irritations in his shoulders, back, legs and feet. This was a hardship, for he wanted to focus all his attention on the wilderness around him, on the experience of being in it, personally enmeshed in the natural reality of the primeval Earth, participating in the process of life in balance with life. All around him was the wonder of a world full of green and brown, leaf and root and scale and feather and fur, which had thrived for so long before humans had meddled most of it away, and he owed it to the billions who would never experience this reality in person to notice every detail, to become totally attuned to the spirit of this carefully preserved place.

Hell, he owed it to himself too. More years of preparation, training, competition and sacrifice than he could fit into his consciousness at once had gone toward this reward, and the memory of it would have to last the rest of his life. He wanted to tattoo each detail indelibly into his grey matter. And God, were there details!

He stopped for a moment to inspect a tiny glade hidden behind an outcropping of mossy granite. In the shadiest spot were a dozen withered stalks of Corallorhiza maculata, the tiny chlorophyll-less orchid, and a large specimen of Lepiota naucina, whose annulus he inspected carefully to positively distinguish it from the deadly Amanita virosa before collecting it into his side pouch for dinner. Living off the land is easy, he thought, but this would be a lousy time to misidentify a mushroom. Straightening his tired legs under the weight of the pack, he chuckled at the memory of disqualified competitors' embarrassment in edible species identification courses.

Trudging forward again, he stripped a handful of huckleberries from a handy bush and, as he chewed, recalled the first day of his hike, when he had stopped every few feet to identify a new species, most of which he had never seen alive before. Now his senses were saturated with discomfort and familiarity; and besides, he was becoming increasingly restless as the hike neared its goal: the river.

Awareness of these feelings was nibbling its way into his consciousness when he crested the last hill and saw it. He sat down heavily on a deadfall and felt his heart respond to adrenalin, staring at the glittering ribbon of silver curled about the base of the mountains. In that wild river flowed the essence of vitality, the concentration of all the pure rain and snow that fell on this protected watershed, nourished these trees and plants, trickled through that gravel, dripped down those rocks and gurgled under some unknown watercress. It carried the scouring grains of the mountains, patiently etching out the designs of gravity's secret will; it carried seaward the unimaginably expressive flavors of this land. And thus it was also the messenger of freedom to the imaginations of the millions who shared the Fisherman's dream: for somewhere in the ocean a great trout tasted those flavors, following the scent of the ground he now stood on, swimming toward the mouth of the river, hesitating, then darting into the saltless water. Leaping, resting, and leaping again, it would follow and lead others of its kind toward the place where they would regenerate themselves. And somewhere in that journey, the trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, soul of wildness, would meet the Fisherman, representative of humanity, who would translate the dream to reality and reality to the dream.

He decided then to camp at that spot for the night, watching the river through the afternoon and alpenglow, absorbing the magic of it at a distance while meditating and preparing himself for the next day, when he would introduce himself to the river on more personal terms.

As he turned to unload his pack, he caught a glimpse of a silvery sphere out of the corner of his eye, and felt suddenly remote and uncomfortable. His imagination was playing tricks on him; some hangover from city life no doubt, but there was something particularly distracting about the image that had caught him off guard. He busied himself disemboweling the pack and tried to put it out of his mind.

 

As the lasers dimmed and the room lights slowly brightened, the Director turned and spoke into the blinking eyes of his colleagues.

"I've cut a lot of the extraneous detail," he said. "We can put some of it back in for filler in the final version, but it isn't crucial to the theme, and a few parts actually detract."

Especially, he thought, the scene where he recognizes the camera. He yawned and stretched, trying to cultivate an air of relaxed objectivity. Waiting for the next segment, he commented, "As you can see, our Fisherman is authentic. It's been years since I've seen a winner with such conviction and charisma." How true that was. He remembered the look he had exchanged with the Fisherman at their last meeting: a moment of mutual understanding, of unspoken common purpose, before the Briefing and the forgetting.

"Every neonaturalist on Earth will fall in love with him," he said. "Keep that in mind."

No one spoke. The Director knew his business.

"Okay, let's take a look at him in action."

 

The river was quieter here, but not still. It fanned out in a sweeping curve of riffle to ease into a run about seventy-five meters long which was such perfect holding water it brought tears to his eyes. Beneath the cut bank where the Fisherman lay on his belly, the slightly green-tinged, clear water swirled at half the speed of a slow walk over an even gravel bed six to eight feet deep. He peered through polarized filters at the shadows just out of sight, and wondered if they were steelhead or just small logs. Did that one move just then? Pointless; he couldn't fish effectively from this bank anyway. Toward the other shore the water grew steadily more shallow, merging the riffle with the gravel bar on the other bank. In between there were occasional telltale bulges which he "read" as submerged rocks, tidy lies for weary fish resting up for their next move upstream. It was the best water he had seen, but he would have to cross the river to get in position to fish it. This would be the place, he felt in his bones.

As he eased cautiously back into the brush, careful not to arouse the slightest suspicion in the hypothetical steelhead resting a few feet away, he experienced a sense of anticipatory fulfillment: just the prospect of touching a fly to water such as this warmed his heart; to actually raise a steelhead was almost inconceivable. But then, one adjusts. A day earlier, he had cast into the river for the first time; his hands had been shaking with excitement, but it had been a poor run, churning white water, and after a hundred skillful but fruitless presentations of the fly to the little pockets of holding water behind boulders, he had grown calm and objective enough to break down his rod and move on without regret. This time it would be different.

He forded the river a hundred meters below the tail of the run, above a wide pool which probably held fish but was too slow to fish gracefully. Perhaps early in the morning, with a dry fly.... As e slipped into the icy water, pack held high, he recalled again is first meeting with the river, an uncautious and sensual meeting: he had stripped and run naked into the water, splashed it over his shoulders, plunged his head in it, tasted it, swallowed it, dived out into its current, swum, drifted, eld onto rocks, and reveled in it all until he could imagine that he was a trout himself, intimately in touch with the moving water the way a human is ordinarily in touch with the machinery of civilization. Then he had grown too cold and had to return to shore, and it was then that he had noticed the silver sphere again.

This time there ad been no chance to turn his mind from it before recognition took hold.

"Damn," he had thought. "The camera! I'm not supposed to be able to see it -- post-hypnotic suggestion or something." He had glared straight into its lens, and in a surge of resentment had made an obscene gesture toward it. Then he had felt absurd and remorseful, and as depression swept over him he had stopped noticing the camera. Until now, he had forgotten the episode entirely. Now he again cursed the incompetent psychologist who had failed to adequately protect him against conscious awareness of the ubiquitous orb that followed him everywhere, hovering about his intimacy with the wilderness, recording every action. Not for this had he worked and dreamed for half his life, competed in twenty-seven events with such ferocious determination, to become Fisherman -- the hero and envy of every human who had read the classics of Zane Grey, Roderick Haigh-Brown, Ernest Hemingway... of all who frequented the special collections of libraries to leaf through ancient copies of Field and Stream or Sierra Club pictorials. He alone, this year, he alone would experience Earth's only remaining wilderness in the flesh, in the traditional ritual to which he was so deeply committed: he was Fisherman, he would capture the great steelhead, the ultimate symbol of freedom, and his actions would provide spiritual fulfillment for a million minds.

And he didn't need to be distracted by the god damned camera dutifully recording his adventure. It was like making love in front of a picture window. He grated his teeth as he thought of it, wading the icy river.

 

The Director broke into the sound track: "It should be clear to all of you by now that this Fisherman is special. Look at his style, the depth of his involvement. Let yourselves slip into the action, see if you don't start feeling the hunter instincts yourself."

None of his colleagues disagreed; they even made an effort to identify with the hero in the hologram, and found themselves truly absorbed. But in each of them lingered a deeper hostility, born of knowing what the Fisherman had done. The Director sensed that his point would not be made easily.

"The next scene gets into the guts of the story," he said, but for the first time there was uncertainty in his voice.

 

The Fisherman waded very slowly along the leading edge of the gravel bar, holding his antique split-cane fly rod poised, and gauged carefully the best position for his first cast. Finally he stopped, positioned his feet firmly, and began to strip line from his reel. In four false casts he had twenty meters of double-tapered line whipping delicately over the surface of the river, never quite making contact with the water. It was a pleasure to exercise such control, but he made no more false casts than necessary before the snap of his wrist that sent the #4 black leech out quivering on the end of his leader to drop gently into the water five meters upstream of a submerged rock. He mended his cast judiciously and focused absolute attention on the drifting line as the submerged fly moved past the rock and into the vision of the steelhead he imagined waiting there.

Nothing.

It was usually a disappointment, that first cast; no fisherman seriously expects to connect on the first try, but none ever fails to hope. He sighed softly and retrieved his fly, laid out line over the same spot several more times, and then tried another lie. Soon he was methodically covering the water, deriving a more sedate satisfaction from the knowledge that he was guaranteeing whatever fish might be there at least a look at his fly.

After repeating the process several times with other fly patterns whose effectiveness was legendary, he eased back out of the water and sat down on a log to rest and evaluate the situation. He wondered if the choice of pattern really made as much difference as the conviction with which it was presented; after all, steelhead did not feed actively in fresh water, and no one knew for sure what spurred them to attach certain arrangements of feather and fur. Perhaps he would try a dry fly next; to take a steelhead on a dry fly was a spectacular rarity, but nothing else had worked.

As he sat thinking, his eyes played over the water, noticing the reflection of the trees on the opposite bank at the same time as they remained alert for any signs of a fish. He felt a vague uneasiness, a sense of disengagement which he could neither escape nor integrate; it all seemed inappropriate, imposed. There was something he could not quite place, something forgotten.... He was unprepared when he saw the rise, a bathtub swirl in the shaded depths near the far bank. After a brief delay, adrenaline surged through his veins. Fish!

He tried not to rush as he waded into position to cast. Patience, he reminded himself, was the most valuable tool at his disposal. At the last moment he stared at the wet fly on the end of his leader. Why not try for the ultimate? He clipped it off and selected a #6 Steelhead Bee from his dry fly box, which he tied on with special care, thinking of the potential miracle of a steelhead on a dry fly.

The cast was faultless. Despite his better judgement, expectation grew into conviction: this time it would happen -- a strike on the first cast! Eyes piercing, hand shaking, he held his breath as the fly drifted over the spot were the fish lay. He was beginning to feel the stab of disappointment when, at the bottom of the lie, a dark shape rose into view. Executing a perfect roll, just creasing the surface, it engulfed the fly just as it started to drag across the surface. Then both were gone, and te line began to move toward the place where they ad disappeared.

His hands acted on their own. The rod arced back, the line snapped tight, and he felt the deep throbbing of a big fish shaking its head in surprised alarm. Then his mind caught up with the action as the fish made its decision and left the water in one wild leap of abandoned flight. It hung suspended, glistening, for what seemed an eternity, before dropping back into its element to begin the fight in earnest. By the time e had changed hands and begun to apply pressure with his fingers to the drum of the screaming reel, the fish was fifty meters downstream.

He splashed to shore, all caution now irrelevant, hanging on to the wildly whipping rod and praying that the fish would turn before all the backing disappeared from his reel. God, this was not just any fish, it was the rightful master of the river, the magnificent wild-eyed steelhead full of the spirit of freedom he had come here to meet. His heart leaped with the fish.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, the camera again. He felt a sense of something ripping inside his mind, like a curtain torn away from a hidden door, but he didn't want to look, he didn't want to open the door. Why couldn't he not know, damn it, why did the conditioning have to break down at the worst possible moment? He saw the camera ever more clearly, but he viciously ejected it from his thoughts. "Nothing will spoil this for me now," he muttered out loud to himself.

It was easy enough to put it out of his mind; his thoughts were so full of the steelhead's streaking run, so involved with the attempt to turn it, so apprehensive of the disappointment of a line suddenly gone slack, that there was little room for superfluous detail. He ran down the bank in short bursts, stopping to apply pressure to the fish, straining his leader as hard as it could stand, watching the backing melt from his reel. Occasionally he tripped on the slick round rocks, but each time his legs desperately found their way back under his center of gravity and he stayed up.

Finally the fish carried him down to the slower pool he had crossed earlier, and the current stopped working against his effort to regain control. But the fish was still taking out line in brief surges, and there were only a few meters left on the reel. If it got to the end of the pool and into the rapids below, he would lose it. He strained the split bamboo until it bent almost double, threatening the leader more every second, and swore gently under his breath in the immemorial style of fishermen. "Turn, you son of a bitch, turn. God damn what a fish. Come on, wild one, ease up just a little. I won't hurt you." He knew the steelhead could not realize that he would never think of harming it seriously, that the gentle release had long since become the only conceivable finale for a fisherman's conquest, but he tried to send thought messages to it anyway, to calm the fish telepathically.

Just as he was feeling despair well up in him, the fish stopped. There were only a few turns left on the reel. He first held a constant pressure and backed up slowly, not daring to alarm his adversary by reeling in; then, when he had definitely turned the steelhead toward him, he began recovering the lost line. The fish came slowly, reluctantly, not beaten yet but willing to lose ground temporarily. It took ten minutes to get all the backing onto the reel again, and another five to bring the fish in close enough to shore to get a look at it, a tremendous silver torpedo fanning its fins slowly, waiting for its next move.

Then it saw his motion, and suddenly the rod was dipping toward the middle of the stream and line was tearing from the reel again. He saw it heading for a submerged snag, and felt dizzy. Would it wrap the line around that log and break off, after all this? He applied pressure, and again the fish stopped its run at the last possible instant, on the threshold of freedom.

"This fish is uncanny," he thought. "Almost as if it were playing with me." At the same instant the camera swooped down over the fish, filming a close-up, and the scene suddenly seemed totally unreal. He began to hate the camera with a patient violence.

The fight continued for nearly an hour, with the fish allowing itself to be pumped in close again and again, only to respond each time with renewed energy in a lightning run interspersed with aerobatics. His senses reeled, saturated; his mind clouded. He began to wonder if it would ever end. And then, without warning, the fish gave up. It milled about aimlessly and rolled its silvery side on the surface. He had won. It was too perfect, too classic to believe, and somewhere deep inside it felt all wrong. He fought the feeling.

"Be here, damn it," he said to himself. "This is what you have waited for all your life. Don't blow it now." But he felt detached, depressed, disappointed. There was something inside him that was spoiling it all for him, something that he couldn't face, didn't want to know. He raised the rod tip, got down on one knee in the shallows, and prepared to release the fish, all the time feeling an inexplicable torment.

And then, as the huge silvery shape slid under his hand, as he looked into the eyes of the steelhead, ultimate symbol of freedom, he knew. He remembered everything.

 

The Director knew he must choose his words with care. "We don't have to use the traditional ending." He swung around and fixed them all with a piercing stare as he spoke. "This is a work of art, not an empty ritual. Why shouldn't we give the public something different, something authentic and fresh? Is the era of creative film-making so far behind us? Why..."

A tense voice challenged, "Let's see the ending. I want to see for myself."

"Why get ourselves all worked up?" the Director responded, on the defensive now. "What we have to pass judgement on is this film, not the Fisherman. The case has gone to court, justice will be done; why can't we just forget about that?"

Murmurs in the crowd. A new voice: "Let us see it. We have a right to see for ourselves." A chorus of agreeing noises.

"Look, if we need a Release, we can fake it, splice one in. We can..."

A soft voice rolled out over the discord and left a very flat silence. It was the Producer's voice. "Let's see the ending, John."

As the lights went down and the lasers came up, the Director sat down heavily. He knew then that he had lost, that the film would never be released. For even in his own mind a door slammed shut forever as he watched the holographic image of the Fisherman raise a rock over his head and bring it down on the great silver steelhead, the only steelhead in existence, again and again, splitting open the flexible plastic and scattering irreplaceable wires, microcircuits and servomechanisms, the heartbreaking fragments of a dream, over the merely real rocks.

 

Originally written for Jerry Newman's short fiction course at UBC in about 1975. Revised in 2012 for submission to Narrative magazine, who rejected it. C'est la vie.