I’m a wanderer now. My name is John Minter, my original world no longer exists, and I don’t grieve for it. What’s real and more importantly what’s going to be real is what matters. Did I kill Hitler? Of course. What self-respecting time-traveller wouldn’t? The very first time I told someone about my predicament they immediately asked why I hadn’t and it admittedly made me uncomfortable. So I did kill him. Twice in fact. ‘For the memes’ is what I wish I could say but that saying no longer exists and nonetheless, it’s not true. I didn’t even do it personally - I made changes to the past which indirectly caused him to die. Apparently, he lived the kind of life where dying prematurely was a real possibility. It does improve the world, I think, but as per usual it’s hard to tell.
How often have I travelled? 89 times. Not so many in the grand scheme of things, not so few that it hasn’t changed me either. The machine should be good for at least a few thousand more and the mission is far from completed. That number is bound to increase significantly.
When analysing a coordinate the machine only sends a handful of particles and records their response, yet even that act changes the world irrevocably. At least if the analysis is of the past. So I don’t use it backwards as I can’t even know what has changed but I have it on good authority that the person that starts an analysis into the far past is extraordinarily unlikely to be the one to receive the results. Frankly, I’d consider it bad UI to even give me the option but they didn’t want to limit me. I don’t think it matters that I would most likely erase myself (and everyone born after the machine analyses) out of existence if I do it that way though. I wouldn’t have passed the psych evaluations if I was the kind of person who did. What does scare me is that due to random chance the resulting timeline after a travel or analysis will be ruinous and without anyone to change it. It’s a small risk but an utterly terrifying one.
Do I miss my original timeline? Not really - we were on the brink of apocalypse and everyone on the team knew they’d be erased as soon as I travelled back. Having some form of humanity is more important after all. We thought the fallout we got was inevitable. It seems we were wrong - I’ve only encountered a similar biochemical event one other time in my travels and even then it wasn’t quite as bad as what we faced. I prevented our whole issue on my first try! It was damn trivial! You’d think my job would be done once that was over but no, turns out that humanity doesn’t fare so well even without that hard Apocalypse. Societal and technological collapses are frequent. As far as I can tell this last timeline had those responsible for the worse of it lauded as heroes. Again. “They made things better”. They didn’t. Sometimes I wish I could be tempted to travel back a million years and do a hard reset on humanity. It would be irresponsible. I wouldn’t fit with the new humanity. I won’t even speak the languages. And they’ll likely only get one shot at it. I don’t venture before the 20th century - the further back I go the more changes there are and the less useful my knowledge is.
Even now I regret going back to 1910. Things are too different already - all the important people and events that happened later just don’t exist here. I believe I slowed down computer science by erasing Turing. Of course, It might’ve been due to someone or something else. That’s partially fixed but if I go to the early 20th century I’ll erase the current alternative technological path, too.
The other direction is no better. I don’t go too far forward because going to a point when a time machine is invented can be disastrous. Not because of any interactions, it’s all just normal matter. I can do whatever depraved acts I want with myself or my predecessors. Wouldn’t mean a thing. The real potential problem with the far future is that there might be others changing the timeline and that can impact my own interventions. I think.
At least there are less issues with letting the machine give me its basic analysis of the point of arrival in a given future. That’s what I am currently doing - firing off scans of the random points in this timeline’s near future and so far I like what they suggest. I can’t tell all that much more than the type of matter at the given locations, but I can find signs of humans at a reasonable frequency in major cities, normal levels of radiation and generally everything pointing towards there being no crisis any time soon. I’m currently in the year 2000 - a year I often use to gauge things as it’s around the time when my world was still doing okay and a nice round number. The first thing I noticed is how humid it is. I expect to remember that as a key feature of this timeline despite it likely simply being a feature of the particular day I traveled to. It’s just how it is.
They are pretty advanced here already. Whether it is due to my last intervention in 1959 or due to random chance I can only guess until I read up. A typical personal computer has 8-12 cores and over 50(!) gigabytes of their equivalent of RAM. A typical working week is 4 days, and only 1% (or 3.5% according to the secondary political party’s metrics) are in poverty.The average life expectancy is at 80.2 years. For some conflicting reasons wearing yellow is strongly discouraged (though not actually illegal in most jurisdictions) but hey, you get used to random things like that. I assume, say, the prevalence of denim - a textile which I haven’t seen in a while - at this point in my timeline would be equally odd to them.
This world does not meet all my requirements - the worldwide incarceration rate is at over 1% and capital punishment is very well received but I’ve learned not to judge too much even when I don’t quite agree. I’ve accepted that the better world wouldn’t look quite like I’ve imagined. At any rate, the more data I gather the more prepared I get to laxen my Utopia requirements. Not yet, of course - there is more to try first. I do need to weigh the chances that I will perish in a bad timeline against the chances of successfully finding a good future.
I will travel to this world’s future to see it, maybe go back and forth a few times to reset or look for points where I can improve it further. There’s hope. I won’t go immediately of course. The machine takes a toll on my body - not as much as something like a space flight but enough, so it is wise to take breaks in between trips whenever possible and to keep in shape. I’m prepared to spend as many years as required on my mission after all - better stay sharp. Pawn shop first, then finding a place to stay and reading up on the effects of my last intervention. The usual.
Samuel Brosnan was currently the Chief Technology Advisor of the USA.
This future is unacceptable. Dystopia of a different colour. People get chipped as soon as they commit a crime and almost everyone has one now. You can’t tow the party line and despite the benefits of a unified world government this is no Utopia-adjacent world. I’ll need to travel before I’m found out - a back to back trip. Unpleasant. The mid 90s perhaps before going back to the 21st century and checking it again.
Samuel Brosnan died 11 years ago.
I’ve been traveling back and forth within this timeline, never earlier than 1989, never later than 2028. There’s much to learn here and occasionally I feel like I’m on the cusp of grasping it. Usually the timeline is ahead technologically, other times socially and sometimes both but there are always problems. I’ll need another try - probably a few - to start really figuring it out.
Sam Brosnan was President. Magnate. Man of the Year. The cliche hero engineer who devoted himself to science. On benefits after being assaulted. 3rd richest man. Leader of the IN reforms. Dead.
Bad luck. It was bound to happen. I traveled to 2021, but the government was after me so I immediately traveled back to 2003 in fear of getting found out again. The stress on my body was already too much and the rowdy drunks who attacked me caused some damage. My knee might not recover fully and this area is already advanced enough that seeking real medical help under the radar is not so easy. I yet again wish I hadn’t had to erase that one identity I prepared in the 80s all those timelines ago. I might need to wait to recover enough for a trip further back where seeking help is trivial. I hope I don’t have to. In the meantime it’s time to examine my options once again.
One option is to travel back and release blueprints and papers to increase the rate of technology advancement. This has not worked as well as I hoped before but I can try different variations. There are many possible variations of this. Many possible variations of everything. Too many, as it always seems to be the case.
Another one would be to micromanage by boosting certain people and advances and keeping others down. It can work but it is finicky. There’s more risk for myself the more involved I get. Still, I can try to identify more promising points for intervention. Sometimes it doesn’t work like my early misguided attempts with Turing - trying to help him avoid punishment for his sexuality helped no one. I do miss him. Sometimes it seems to help like with that recent Bell Labs equivalent.
Yet another alternative I’ve perhaps dismissed too hastily and which starts to look more tempting is to find smart people, get them on my side, tell them everything and work together.
Sam Brosnan was the prolific ‘investor poet’.
I had to spend over a month to heal enough for the series of jumps I needed but by the time I arrived in 1999 I had most of the information on how to quickly set up and get some of the best treatment available. I know a lot more now. Further, I know a lot more about now, who to contact and how. What’s left is to wait things out the old-fashioned way.
“topic: 3446124419567 ∑##$ zzrtrt ; no harm
You must be currently investing in $WWZ or writing your essay on bias in technology forecasting. I wouldn’t want to make you abandon either but we need to talk. I believe you secretly think you are on your way to becoming one of the most important people alive today. You are correct but let’s not set our standards too low. You are about to become much more than that.
344626 tonight. Message me when you confirm.
I’d tell you that you aren’t system infiltrated and my information comes from elsewhere but I understand you aren’t the kind of person to ignore the chance you are.”
This should do it. If it doesn’t - there’s always next time.
It didn’t. It took 17(!) more messages to get there but we are finally meeting. I’ve already paid off people in law enforcement - specifically those who were later caught for being less than exemplary, set up a driver nearby, emergency fund and a few other countermeasures in case Samuel ends up screwing me over. It’s time. Then again, it always is.
I am now facing the unexpected. My name is Samuel Brosnan, the world needs to be improved, and the tall, well-toned and impeccably dressed man in front of me claims to have the means. The same man who knew portions of my secret passwords - kindly rearranged either in case someone saw the messages, or because that’s all he could get, and other details I would have thought near impossible to know or guess.
I have checked all my records, and those of the people around me and there are no obvious security breaches, no missing hours, nothing. Computer system infiltration is always possible of course, but in his very first letter he assumed I was working on an essay which I had only started composing in my head and planning on writing all at once that night. I did not - my time went into planning how to approach this. I followed with more messages asking for other types of verification, ‘idle’ discussion which he must have realized was just hunting for hints. I got the most by hinting that I am abandoning the essay. He knew too much. Of course, my transition into writing about problems in technology forecasting is perhaps somehow predictable even if the timing is so perfect. His use of the exact terms I planned to borrow from other sciences when hinting at how important he thinks it is what put me on edge. Then again, so did a lot of the other things he said and promised but that’s what really got me. All of it made perfect sense, especially the parts about the best directions in research and development. This is no crank or at minimum they are extremely knowledgeable. Knowledgeable enough to have little problem arranging a meeting with me through more normal means. Knowledgeable enough that I should have heard of him.
I’ve mostly ruled out the more plausible theories. The best ‘mundane’ theory is a combination of system infiltration + lucky guesses + extremely smart people working in tandem. The chance of getting so much right is far too unlikely but perhaps if they did this to many others, lucked out only with me and had other sources of information.. I queried some influential people but none of them admitted to having received messages like this - “I wish the cranks would for once send me anything remotely plausible or interesting” is what Revan, the man I get most often compared to, replied.
The other theories which I have to consider at this point are much less likely a priori and are mostly different types of advanced technology. As unlikely as it is, if someone could do a full brain scan of me and select other people, parse that information and use it then they could do something like this. Same idea with a novel drug to make me tell them everything they need, then forget and somehow cover their tracks but there were too many logs they’d need to fake. If they had things like that, I do not know why they would even need me. Although, to be fair, I have little idea why they need me anyway. But I do want to find out.
I decide to open with a joke by leaning on one of my less likely theories. Lighten things up from the start, hopefully take control of the conversation.
“Salutations, John. It is clear you are a time traveler,” I say, smirking. It is important to look like you are in control even when you are not.
“I am, and you seem to be as smart or even smarter than you seem If you’ve already figured it out and accepted it. I assume then you already have a good idea of what we might be doing here,” he shoots back.
I most certainly did not and despite my competing urges to either drop my jaw or laugh, I stop to think. My first thought was on his accent. It was slightly off which was a small point in favour of him being a time traveler. As they say - the parallel is a different country. If he had brought it up, I would think even less of it as he is certainly capable of preparing that much but he did not. On the other side, it was now clear he had subtly tried to lead me towards that conclusion. ‘Today’ was emphasized in his first email. He indirectly talked about the future. He acted like he was both unknown and powerful. Regardless, I fall back on old habits and say the obvious - “Proving it.”
I listened to his explanation, asked my questions and told the presumed time-traveler to meet again in a day. It all mostly made sense but there were parts I could attempt to verify. His involvement in the 1949 shift for pre-registration of research and the related changes of typically used statistical methods. The dark matter anomalies or what would be anomalies under our current models. The theoretical validity of the various technology paths he claims we’ll be taking. Jana and Mellisa. I assume he realized I recorded it all.
It checks out as far as I can tell. It’s extremely unlikely but there are not many better explanations and I am not one to reject the unlikely if it fits. It’s not like I will stop looking for alternative explanations. I approach him.
He is smiling. His outfit is reminiscent of a security guard’s today. “Here’s a copy of your watch, that pretty logo from your lobby and Whales’ ‘Man versus God’. Lucky that you are fond of such a tiny painting. I can’t bring all that much with me,” he says.
I take my time verifying them, while noting the implication that he can only bring a little with him at a time. That’s fine and to be expected.
“Would my lab find anything unusual about those duplicates?” I ask idly to confirm my working model of his time travel. They should be completely normal matter. Really, I should be amazed about the implications of unlimited duplicates with minimal limitations but I am still preoccupied with being amazed with Time Travel in general.
“Not unless you analyze them with an IBM 5100,” he replies but quickly adds “Sorry, a joke from another time. The reference means nothing now.”
It’s dangerous to make assumptions on a throwaway comment but I file this away. Something to investigate further. “And you can duplicate anything as long as it is small?”
“In theory, yes,” smiled the time-traveler. “In practice it is a bit more complicated with the biggest limitation being that the machine can’t travel to points in space-time that are too close together, at least not until the prior travel has been overwritten by one that is sufficiently earlier.”
I wonder if he is bluffing. This should put me at ease as it implies that he cannot easily retry his conversations with me over and over but he could also be lying.
I kept thinking how ripe for abuse the duplication abilities of the machine were - take something valuable, send it to the past, rinse and repeat and you have many copies of it. Apparently, you can’t travel to points within a year or so of each other but you can still work around it if you have a longer time frame.Cloning powerful chips or parts can come in handy but in the end it seems more likely to be a ‘step two’ in reaching what John calls ‘Utopia’. First, we need society to be mostly in order for enough years and then we can think about duplicating whatever we want to move to a post-scarcity scenario.
“I think you are approaching this all wrong. There is a better way,” I tell John directly while projecting that I mean it.
It is absolutely incredible that Time Machines were invented and everything didn’t dissolve into utter chaos immediately. Having the only person who has access to one be someone attempting to prevent the worst outcomes is a godsend. It’s still dangerous of course - any one man can and will err. Everything riding on their judgement and luck. I can only imagine how bad it must have been for those smart enough to build it to take such a risk. It is horrifying in a lot of ways but nowhere near as bad as the alternatives. If anything it’s surprising how fortunate we are.
“You already have a solution? I am skeptical,” John says but I could see the hints of hope and excitement on his square face.
“Yes or at least a much better approach. You have a blindspot.” The skepticism shows now and too much hinges on the next part. He’s not going to like it but I continue nonetheless “Of course, I have a few conditions first.” I tell him
“Go on,” he replies.
“I don’t get completely erased,” I say. “We leave the timeline before 1976 stable.”
“It is hard for me to relate anymore. I have accepted that my life is forfeit aside from this but I can understand how it must be different for you. I will warn you though - even the tiniest chance of a success is worth uncountably more than our lives are. I will have to think about it,” he says with a look betraying sorrow.
“Why? This is not just self-preservation on my part.” - to a large extent it was - “You already told me the current branches hold promise. You’ve apparently seen multiple versions of myself committed to improving things. You told me I can be the ‘chosen one’, which admittedly almost made me walk away. This is not a boast but I am clearly an asset to the world. You think it might be selfish? I am willing to accept that my current self will stop existing, a sacrifice you yourself have never taken,” I reply. The last part might seem unfair but it frames the conversation in a manner I can use.
He regarded me with a dark look before saying “To put it bluntly, I am not banking everything on this despite how much time I’ve invested. If it doesn’t work I need to keep my options open. Promises are not something I break either - it was an explicit part of both my selection and training in the hopes that if there are other time travelers they’d be trained similarly and the chance of us working together would be higher. So I won’t make a promise I might not keep and I don’t want to limit my options without a good reason. I still want to hear you out so I implore you to put yourself in my shoes and think how little of a sacrifice one’s existence is.”
To put myself in his shoes? I idly wonder if that saying is from his timeline. This is a very favourable response despite him not agreeing yet, and if he means what he says about promises - which makes sense on the face of it.
I decide to reveal more “I understand but you’ve gotten a few things wrong, my ally. First, my solution will leave no room for other trips. It will be final. Second, you profess selflessness but you are the blindspot. You think you need to be the one making trips which is not the case,” I tell him.
He stands up and looks like he might be considering abandoning this. I try not to think of the ever present threat of having this conversation and his interaction with me erased altogether. Despite a twinge of guilt, which I’ve long ago learned to suppress, I continue “No, you are still not getting it. Nobody has to. You are wasting enormous amounts of your machine’s limited capacity to lug yourself around. Even if you weren’t, you can do what? A few thousand trips in your lifetime? At best? We can do a lot better.”
Two weeks had passed since I started convincing him and it was working. He was partly worn down and I leaned on it to exaggerate his mental tiredness of his situation. I emphasized how he wont have to travel and he will finally be a part of a world again. The world. Minimized the risks perhaps, maximized his role so it doesn’t seem quite so out of his hands. I used every other trick I had. Mainly though, I just relied on the plan.
Changes had to be made. The main part didn’t. The machine can scan a small amount of particles and bring back results. This costs it energy but less than a full trip and it doesn’t interfere much with repeat travel. So why not set up our own hyperspecific places to check on top of the general ones and automate it? If you can make it possible to judge the quality of the timeline based on the checks the rest is easy. Change something small or leave a small message, fire up many checks each of which will result in a different timeline branching off that change. Do it as an optimal stopping problem - first fire enough checks to establish a baseline, and then keep at it for as long as the machine has energy - which if optimized should let it evaluate at minimum trillions of random timelines - and stop on the timeline that the policy judges most likely to be optimal.
The message for the machine’s automated checks can’t be as complex as we’d like, and wouldn’t be so easy to set up. Very specific spots where we will leave a milligram of lithium in onel case, gold with specific concentrations in the best one and so on.
Of course, versions of me and him would need to evaluate the timeline we live in, based on all our pre-selected rules, which were developed by John as much as me. We’ll not only need to do that and leave the right particles in the right places to evaluate it but also set up everything else. Maybe we die in some of them and the only positive checks there are those outside our control - things like global radiation levels but that’s okay. It most likely will at least ensure that in the final timeline at minimum one of us is setting up signals indicating the timeline is good and the neutral indicators don’t have obvious flags. In the best case, which I am optimistic about based on John’s experiences, we end up with an ‘Utopia’, or at least a timeline that we can make it one.
It has only been six months and the setup is complete. Everything is in place. The machine is modified. I did most of the work after a point but never without John’s supervision. It was only natural.
He is staring at our setup, rehearsing. “I will travel to June 1st 1989, a promising starting point. I will get out of the machine, ensure that I’ve set myself up properly and on July 20th I will initiate the process. This should be the last time I see the machine. I will not know whether this is the final timeline or a fleeting one, and will start contacting your 13 year old self using the scripts you wrote. By the time you are 16 I will have revealed everything and we will set up the first check in the High New England lab, which is largely funded by your aunt, Fernanda Brosnan,” he says.
“The plan is hundreds of pages long, it might be better to rehearse the contingencies than the base parts, my ally,” I tell him frankly. I should be more excited but all the work is done and I will in many ways stop existing. That simple fact is affecting me much more than I expected, not that I will say so out loud. I feel hollow. Better if that part of me is not something he remembers and carries to Utopia.
He asks me some more inconsequential questions and I do my best to answer them again. His future selves will still be a continuation of his current self so it’s exceedingly important to keep him grounded. My alternate selves will branch from how I was at 13. It should worry me that they won’t be as capable as me but I know from John that I consistently succeed across timelines and can only do better with guidance. No, what I am afraid of isn’t if they’ll do well. I worry if they’ll really be me, the me of right now rather than someone too different to really count.
“This is it, huh? My last go. We’ve been preparing for a while yet it still feels so abrupt. It’s so.. final.” John says. For a moment I expect him to say more, but he just walks to the machine, my existence already irrelevant to him.
I am selfish. My name is Samuel Brosnan, and my world is not Utopia. I subverted John when I was 17 and faked all future checks. I did not want to be erased so I ensured my timeline will be the final one.
It sounds like the version of me that planned this didn’t want to be honest with himself and admit his fears. It was inevitable for one of us to take over - self-preservation is too strong a motivator. Did he truly not realize? Or did he realize and judged it best if I am the one in charge nonetheless?
Regardless, I’ll make it right. Surely using all the knowledge I have now and the dearly departed John’s resources will be enough. Enough to recreate the Machine. Enough to reach Utopia. I don my yellow jacket in defiance and get back to work. I can fix this.