Monday, August 29, 2011

Test Pilot

So we figured it out, the intersection of religion and science. The coordination of temporal physics and fate. All of it. We knew all the math, experimentally derived over centuries of observation, experimentation, and billions of frustrated, caffeinated man-hours of thousands of the world’s greatest minds. We had just gotten it all down to a science. Now we were examining practical applications. If destiny is determined and measurable, can it be harnessed? Can we end unnecessary suffering without messing with free will? Can we prevent suffering without interfering with free will? The science is understood, we are the engineers of the future, the shapers of tomorrow. I looked myself in the mirror, adjusting my safety harnesses and weaponry. For this cause, I put myself in perennial danger on a daily basis.

I’ve gotta admit, I’ve loved this stuff for years. Having an IQ of 200 never hurts, but you still have to live and breathe this stuff. While other kids had posters of pop stars and Quidditch players on their walls, I had autographed posters of various chrononauts, the first time travelers, beaming proudly in front of their time machines. While other kids read their space westerns, I was reading Hawking. My 9th grade science project, an analysis of chaos theory’s role in statistically improbable events, attracted the attention of Hong Kong Tech’s physics department, reversing my science teacher’s claims of plagiarism.

But back to present day. Basically, in my research, I look up events of the past, and enter all relevant situational data into the school’s supercomputer bank. I then look for numbers that look strange, probability factors far outside of expected values. This is more grueling then you might think: collecting data, fighting with the model, re-calculations, and interpreting results. Then you have to triple-check the whole thing, and send it to some lower grad students for two more rounds of double-checking. Once results are determined and a plan is declared, the departmental head gives me my signatures to operate the chronomobile, the school’s time machine. That’s when the fun begins.

This is my second time working with the chronomobile. We are just at the vanguard of experimental fate, so we only look at little things. Last semester I wrote up an entire paper on a sandwich choice that changed a traffic accident a couple blocks from campus. I saved the life of an old lady crossing the street. I bought all the hot dogs of a local 7-11, thereby preventing another guy from doing so. He bought a sandwich instead, and never spilled ketchup on his pants while driving to work. He never got distracted by the ketchup, never swerving his car into the old lady. She died two days later of natural causes, unfortunately, so we believe the space time continuum is unaffected. We are currently analyzing consequences and resulting ripples.

So, step 1 is complete. We prevented some minor suffering in the world. No one had to kill an old lady, no pedestrians witnessed her death, and traffic was not held up that day. Now we look at the unintended consequences. Basically, before the event, our computers spat out all kinds of data. Signals you’ll never understand that ripple for years into the future, location and person-specific. I can tell from looking at a few squiggly lines that the would-be killer would have spent a few days in therapy, and several months letting his wife do the driving. Then the squiggly lines return to normal for a while, until the man’s son is about to get a driver’s license and we see some spikes and then a return to normal activity. There are thousands of other signals associated with the event and all those affected, but none got in the red zone, so that’s the experiment preceded as normal. I saved an old lady’s life for science. It was a good day.

We still had more tests, though. We did an analysis, again, searching for the red zone that should now be absent. It was missing! This was a success. We held a press conference that week and received an invitation to speak at an exclusive conference. I was the first0I spent three bleary-eyed days staring at my screen, checking and double checking results. Boring work, but you know, drink coffee and put on some good music and get it done. It’s generally worth a paragraph write-up you owe the department.

Around 2am on day 3, the red zone popped up. I sat up. Where was the disturbance? I found the locational and personal signals. The time of the start of the red zone was 22 days, 2 hours, 5 minutes, and 2 seconds after the old lady avoided death. It continued for 5 hours. Where? A few blocks from the university. Whom? Um, let’s see. It was easy to recognize the waveform and identification number of the same driver. I guess he’s just a terrible driver. Whose life did he claim this time? Whose waveform is this? It goes into the red zone and disappears, signifying the end of a life. I right clicked the second waveform and sipped my coffee as the hourglass pulled up the personal id number. I spat. That number was mine.

What’s the date of that red zone? What’s today? My eyes darted to my desk calendar and back at the waveform. I had approximately 8 days. 8 days to determine the cause of the disturbance. I zoomed in on the start of the red zone nervously. The progress bar slowly turned from blue to green as the program hummed along in its thousands of calculations. Fuck fuck fuck. “Damnit, Cody,” I thought to myself. Why did I have to be so impatient? Why did I skip the most basic calculations? My eyes fell upon the picture of my fiancée. Oh yeah. How much scientific progress has been lost to love and horniness? The exact time came into clearer view. Yep. 12:03pm is when I die. Same intersection I cross to get to the sandwich shop. That’s me. Death on rye bread on Thursday, April 6th. I gulped.

So, the score was thus: I was the first person to save a life with time travel. I fucked up. I pulled my flask from my desk and took a swig. I had disrupted the signals of the universe and fucked myself over. I scrolled right through the disturbances. For 4 years, 7 months into the future, there are 106 waves in the red zone. I…do not have time to fix all this. I can’t save myself within 3 weeks and look at the unintended consequences. Clearly, clearly our software is screwed. I got up. I crossed the room. Deep breaths. Let’s think this over.

So Dr. Iverson’s calculations are clearly off. The software is based on faulty calculations. We’ve been screwing up the entire space time continuum due to a misplaced decimal or a faulty exponent. Shit. It could take months to recalibrate, months we don’t have. I paced. Simulation software is now useless. It’s all got to be direct experimentation. I have to get the chronomobile and tweak the past. It is not enough to save the old lady, I must save the old lady but still teach the driver a lesson.

But no, what if the calculations are all wrong right now? What if there are no red zones in the future? At least one signal could be miscalculated, throwing everything else off. Maybe part of the experimentation process is re-evaluation. Shit. Experiments are great when everything works, but something about prediciting my own death to the third decimal place makes me uncomfortable.

I paced. What can I do? Well, the department head must be alerted. And the dean. Probably need some chronography researchers. What’s the plan? The chronomobile fuel budget has already been exceeded some ten-fold, and I’ve already had several screw-ups. What am I saying? This is my life! Spare no expense to save me! No, no, no, I don’t need a chronomobile, I can just, you know live my life going forward through time at the same speed as everyone else. I just won’t, you know, die. I won’t go to that deli, I won’t cross that street. But then what? I’ve fucked with my own free will. Does the simulation take into account my awareness of the simulation? Must everyone in town live in fear of the man who spills ketchup on his pants as he drives? Can’t we just arrest him. I cried. I don’t want to die. Fuck science. I need me! I’m my own red zone.

I checked my bank account. I checked the airline price trackers. You know, whatever. My life is worth all of it. I was on the next flight before the night janitors finished cleaning my lab. My landlord never knew what happened. My sister probably still has no idea, and I don’t want to think about how upset my fiancée is. All that matters is that I find the answer. If I have to haul pails of water to this monastery for the rest of my life, I would be no happier.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Of Gods and Goons

A revolver drops from one hand onto a small, circular table, the clap of its weight echoing in the darkness beyond, the clatter of five bullets following suit from five other hands. The sole table lamp hanging from above reveals six men in funeral suits as they each pull up a seat, their features obscured in the shadows and cigar smoke choking the pale light.

“Ignorance is bliss, eh gentlemen?” the sharpest of the men, Johnny, says as he reaches for the revolver and one of the unassuming bullets. He slides the single bullet into a chamber, spins the cylinder and snaps it into place. Johnny draws the revolver to his temple and, without a second thought, pulls the trigger.


Johnny hands the revolver, handle-first, to the guy on his left -- Lenny, the luckiest of the men.

“Your go,” Johnny says to Lenny.

Lenny grasps the handle with a shaking hand, and then begins to bring the gun to his own temple.

“No, stop!” says Franky, the largest of the men. “You have to spin the block first, you blockhead! Don’t you know anything?”

“Oh, right,” Lenny mutters. “Sorry.” He steadies his hands long enough to spin the cylinder block once more before raising the barrel to his temple. Lenny squeezes his eyes shut. Seconds start to pile up.

“Go already!” snaps Bobby, the quickest of the men.


Lenny slumps his head on the table, and the tallest of the men, Donny, peels the revolver from Lenny’s hand.

“The kid doesn’t belong here,” croaks Perry, the oldest of the men, pointing at Lenny. Donny spins the cylinder of the revolver, drawing the gun to his head.

“He’s old enough,” Johnny says, “and he can leave anytime he wants.”


“You know that’s not entirely true,” says Franky as he takes the revolver handed to him by Donny.

“You know what I mean,” Johnny growls. “Let’s not get into semantics, please.”

“It ain’t semantics,” Franky says as he spins the cylinder, his attention on Johnny. “It’s the whole reason we’re all here.” He raises the revolver to his head. “I’m just saying that we don’t want to--”


“--lose sight of the stakes here,” Franky continues as he slaps the revolver into Perry’s hand. “That’s all.”

“How could we lose sight of our own lives?” Lenny asks in a quiet, monotone voice.

“Shaddup!” Franky yells. “I’m talkin’ about how we even have stakes at all!”

Perry clicks the cylinder in place after spinning it and waves the barrel towards Lenny as if it were his finger.

“Our lives just make the stakes fun, kid.” Perry goes on as he turns the barrel towards himself. “Our lives don’t matter; the stakes themselves do.”


Bobby snatches the revolver from Perry’s hands and already starts spinning the cylinder.

“I don’t know about the rest of you gentlemen,” Johnny says, “but--”


Bobby slides the gun on the table into Johnny’s hand.

“--thanks--but I didn’t join this game to be reminded of what’s outside our little circle.” Johnny rolls the cylinder, closes it in place, and pulls the barrel up to his head. “And if it’s all the same, I’d rather not know any of your--”


Lenny jumps in his seat, while everyone else barely bats an eye at the now very-dead Johnny. The revolver falls to the floor.

“Will someone please get rid of the dead guy so we can get back to things already?”

Donny rises from his chair and moves around Lenny and to the late Johnny. He bends down, scoops the revolver from the floor, and drops it with a thud in front of Lenny before dragging Johnny’s corpse into the darkness. Lenny simply stares at the revolver on the table as a heavy minute shuffles by.

Donny returns to his seat.

“Any day now,” Bobby says. “Before someone figures to stop us.”

Lenny takes a deep breath, picks up a bullet, closes his eyes, slowly goes through the motions, and aims the revolver between his eyes.


Exhaling on the verge of a sob, Lenny tosses the gun on the table. Donny pulls the gun towards himself and turns the cylinder once more.

“Does your lucky streak last this long with the ladies?” asks Franky with a smirk. All the men guffaw except for Lenny, who groans.

“Hold on!” says Bobby. “This all is too predictable for my liking. The whole going-around-in-a-circle deal, I mean. Give it to me, Donny.”

Donny flashes a wicked smile. He points the barrel at Bobby.


Bobby’s body slumps onto the floor. The other men, save Lenny, applaud for Donny. Donny tips his hat towards the others before reaching for another bullet to begin the process anew. Franky stands up to move Bobby’s corpse away.

“Can’t say I didn’t see it coming, but he was asking for it,” Perry says.

“You didn’t—“ Franky starts to say before Perry cuts him off.

“Of course not! Knowing the outcome of our little game would ruin the only pleasure I have these days. I was actually hoping it’d be a dud just so I could see the stupid look on his face.”

“Wait for me, will ya?” Franky says as he drags the body into the darkness. Silence.

“So,” Lenny says to Perry.

Perry hums in inquiry.

“Do you remember what life was like before?”

“Before the moment when everyone could know their fate, and everything else in the universe, with precise certainty? Before the questions of science and faith were answered beyond a doubt?”

Lenny nods.

“Frightening. Exciting. A lot more gambling, and a lot less peace. Now let me ask you something, kid: why are you here?”

Lenny pauses in surprise.

“Life has no meaning if we can’t make our own choices. You said yourself that this game gives us the one sole thrill we don’t otherwise have.”

Perry sighs.

“You don’t belong here – and no, I don’t mean you’re not old enough. I mean that you’re better than us. No matter what life has dealt you, you have the strength to accept your fate, or the character to fight against it, regardless of the futility. That’s always a choice you have, whether you know your fate or not, and damn the gods who say otherwise!”

Lenny stares into the space that only exist in his thoughts. Franky returns to take his seat.

“Alright, let’s get this game going!” Franky says. Donny draws the gun to his head.


Donny passes the revolver to Franky. Lenny stands up to leave.

“You goin’ already?” Franky says to Lenny. “Don’t lose sight of the stakes, chump! It’s not like you ever made a real choice coming here or leaving, you know. None of us did.” Franky spins the cylinder block and snaps it into place. “We might as well be dead!”


“Damn it!” Franky screams, hurling the revolver onto the table. Lenny picks up one of the bullets on the table and walks into the darkness. Perry grasps the revolver and thumbs the cylinder block.

“So who wants to bet on how all this will end?” Perry asks. “I’m putting down two on the tall one left at the end.”