Monday 3 September 2012

Weakest Link in the Moebius Chain

When famous web-authors like me cash the stipend cheques doled out by the science-fiction authorities it can be hard to decide how to spend the loot. Aged caviar? Diamond towels and golden showers? Non-streetlegal custom-engineered gleaming-chassis Italian prostitutes? Decisions, decisions.

Sometimes it can be hard to grok the long-term consequences of the consequences of a decision's implications. You know?

Take the narrator of this next story, for example, reaping the fruit of a garden he hasn't even planted yet. It's less a morality tale than an ouroboros tail, but the difference between these is sometimes subtle.

(Note: This week's illustration doesn't actually belong to this story. It goes with a short piece by Trina Marie Phillips being featured now over at AE: The Canadian Science-Fiction Review. But it's all I had handy so I'm using it to decorate this post, too.)

And now, the below:

by Cheeseburger Brown

I forget why I invented time travel. That's probably on purpose. It's very likely my future self knew something my past self shouldn't know, and so made the appropriate arrangements. That's just good sense. Sometimes you're only one stray memory away from paradox.

It's none of my business, strictly speaking. I'm stuck here in the middle, chugging along through the present, dodging exchanges of probabilistic ordnance between my past self, my future likelies, and several sparring armies. Let them sort it out between themselves, I say. No matter who's winning my memories are a battlefield. I just keep calm and carry on.

There are many awards in my study, and framed certificates on the wall narrating my polymathic scholarly achievements. These help remind me of what is constant and real. Evidently I am a famous inventor. I guess I think science is pretty good.

Every few weeks one of the awards disappears. I accuse the household robots of stealing them but they never verify guilt.

"I've won the Zoran Prize for physics," I once told mixed company only to have my horrified wife whisper in my ear that that one wasn't mine any longer. History had fluctuated again, and I'd forgotten to remember.

The navy mails me update notes but I neglect to read them. Because I'm a very busy man probably.

"A certain amount of temporal fluctuation is to be expected and is a reasonable price to pay for endless peace and total historic security," I'm often quoted as having said sometime.

That's one of the ways I know time travel is being used for good instead of evil -- the peace. The peace is wall to wall. Nobody ever invades our star system anymore, for example.

There are gaps, naturally. Gaps in my knowledge arising as a result of temporal censorship. These sorts of nips and tucks may touch the average citizen once or twice in a lifetime, totally unbeknownst to their knowing, but as the inventor of time travel I'm caught up in an enormous number of large-scale consequences, which means I feel the results of temporal censorship way more than anybody else.

Do I sound bitter? Because I'm not. I sleep well at night knowing how the things I don't know can't hurt any of us. I sleep like a baby.

My wife varies a lot, but according to my published calculations this is normal and expected. Unless you're extremely into aliteroid waveform geometry it's hard for me to get into too much detail or I swear it'll all sound like pitcher hydroelectric carriage tingo gallop instead of sentences that convey meaning.

My name is always Dr. Orban Sharma. I'm pretty tall. I have dark skin and hair, and most versions of my wife act as if I'm handsome.

I usually have a human manservant named Gavin. Today I do. While he helps me shave intimately we go over my big speech for the science awards extravaganza thing. I keep clearing my throat because I'm nervous for some reason, even though I know I make speeches like this all the time – at schools, at stadiums, at war memorials and gravesides and wakes. "Ahem, ahem. It will always been to be being my humblest honour...ahem, ahem."

"Master, might that morsel be mis-transcribed?"

I look down at my crotch. "What? No, no. That's how the young people talk these days, Gavin. They blither the tenses. I'll reference a forgotten source explaining that it's a natural consequence of growing up in a post-temporal world. You won't want to be having sounded out of touch, will you do?"

Gavin rolls his eyes. "An appropriate accord, sir, abhors aping adolescent argot."

"Because some verbal fashions never go out of style, is that it?"

Gavin frowns. His technique suffers.

I wince. "Hey, careful!"

We rinse and he powders me privately. My presentation has to be perfect because I'm wearing a pair of designer pants showcasing the latest style in transparent clothing. As these trends tend to be highly unstable I just pray they're still cool by the time I reach the podium.

I walk out of my bathroom and into my wife's. Today she's a brunette. I'm not sure if that means a new bottle of hair stuff or the hardening of an alternative history but either way I think she looks fairly hot. I smile. "Yovina?"


"Pardon me. Have you always had no breasts?"

"You might know the people of my nation extract extraneous breast tissue in a deeply meaningful post-puberty ceremony."

"Oh? Well it lends you a very nice line."

"I've been having danced, darling."

"Do you were? Wonderful. I look forward to remembering all about that."

I kiss her on the nape of the neck and proceed to the bedroom. An extremely primitive robot is making the bed, because I guess the interior designer is finally experimenting with those localtime-crossed pockets of quaint antiquity as she's been threatening to go ahead and do if I ever went away on vacation, which I did. So she did. Should I fire her?

I turn to look in the mirror. "What colour sash goes with transparent pants?"

I go deaf. There's dust everywhere, stinging my eyes. What popped?

I stumble around. The windows in the corridor between our bathrooms are all over the floor. Gavin also is all over the floor. My wife looks like she's yelling at me but all I hear is a roaring in my ears. She's cradling one arm. I blink.

There's a complex hole in the corridor. I recognize the fractal filigree edges, rotating in rhythm with the spatial pumps working on the other side to keep the fissure live.

A man in an environment suit steps through the complex hole and into my house. He scopes left and right with a wrist-mount scanner, the light from his headlamp shining in my eyes.

He disappears but then he's there again. Parts of his body phase in and of out of the visible spectrum, reddening and purpling in erratic pulses.

Temporal flickering.

It means he's a rebel. Hacking history.

I can't see his face through the swimming, flashing visor. Is he looking at me? I wave. He waits until two more figures in environment suits come through the hole to join him. They advance as a party, the broken glass snapping and crunching under their constantly varying boots.

I'm on the floor, I recognize. I scramble backward. I hear a warbling ring that almost sounds like words. Gloved hands reach out at me.

I scream. My ears pop. I cough up dust and suddenly I can hear again.

"Don't hurt me! Don't hurt my wife! You can have all the diplomas and awards you want! The combination to the safe is my birthday! I'm going to close my eyes so I can't identify you!"

"Dr. Sharma?"

"I'm not looking at you. See?"

"Dr. Sharma, open your eyes please."

Compromise. I open only my left eye. "Who are you?"

"We're with the rebellion."

"Ha -- I knew it!"

Their visors lift so I can see their faces, which swim with bi-aliteroid indecision. The woman on the left oscillates between a blond and a redhead. The guy on the right is just a fuzzy time-lapse smear. The man in the middle is the most solid so he's the one I choose to look at. I have no idea how unclear and time-blended I may appear to him. He seems to be looking at me strangely, but then clears his throat and says, "Yes, of course. We've come to talk, Dr. Sharma, in hopes you can save us all. Surely you recognize the gravity of the situation."

I push my hand through my hair and gape at the destruction behind them. "I sure do. I'm going to have to get an adjuster in here just as soon as I'm done my speech at the extravaganza. Gavin, get my insurer on the line! Gavin? Oh, right."

The rebel furrows his brow. "Dr. Sharma, I'm not talking about the dimensional pike pseudo-currently intersecting your his-and-hers toilets."

"The what? That's a cool name."

"I'm talking about the navy's wanton modifications to history that are right now spiraling out of control and undermining local reality at our star to the brink of catastrophic collapse."

He stares at me.

I snicker and snort, then wave one hand dismissively. "Oh, that'll sort itself out. I've seen to it, probably. I wouldn't worry about it. Usually everything's fine. Clear up by morning, I'll bet."

"Dr. Sharma, this is not the weather!" he cries, then turns to look at his oscillating colleague. "What's going on? Why is idiot?"

"I've taken a few for the team," I explain, pointing to my head.

The alternating blond and redhead direct their hand-held device at me. "I was afraid of this," they say. "He's living in a constant bath of aliter censure -- artifacts of post-modification clean up efforts to stave off paradox. Probability's all downhill from everywhere, and Dr. Sharma's sitting at the bottom of a deep local well. Any act of historical modification, any act at all, passes through him in some way. Because he started it."

The guy smeared a few seconds into the past and future nods, his features a stack of streaks. "He's a living, breathing anti-paradox machine powered by an ignorance engine," he echoes, moving a scanner up and down the length of my body. "His causality burden should be massive, but – it's not..."

"How are they draining the causality burden off him?" barks the man in the middle, eyes still locked on me.

The blond-redhead shake their heads in apparent disbelief as they look up from their device. "It's more than that. Look at the spacetime wake: they're isolating his significant findings and shifting them, re-creating each compartmentalized discovery via another researcher, and then...erasing the original discovery from Dr. Sharma's timeline."

The blur adds, "Major, this means the navy is distributing the genesis of the science, to make it less vulnerable to temporal attack through Dr. Sharma. This guy is a scarecrow. He's a decoy. He's a fool. We've failed."

"Chin up," I say. "Can I get you something to drink? It might help you relax. There must be a robot around. I'd fetch it myself but as you can see I'm wearing transparent pants."

They ignore me. The man in the middle looks grim. "They've anticipated us then. Assassinating this moron will achieve nothing. Time travel will still have been to be invented, but instead of one visionary man at the centre of all we have dozens of minor players -- hand-picked by the navy, no doubt spread in time, and even more heavily defended than Sharma's childhood."

The fuzzy guy's watch bleeps, the sound skewed. "The pike's got less than a minute, major. The lock is sliding."

The major man in the middle turns back to me. "It's a goddamned shame," he grunts. "You were one of history's greatest geniuses. But now you're a husk -- a shadow defined by what's been taken away from you." He sighs. "And you haven't any idea, have you?"

"Don't be silly," I say. "Of course I understand what's involved in temporal hygiene. I invented the field. I fully knew I'd suffer disproportionately. But that's a sacrifice I'm proud to make in order to win a more secure tomorrow. I love the empire. And now my work will keep it safe, and keep it human -- forever."

"Are you reading that off your hand?"

I put my hands behind my back. "No."

His shifting face seems sombre somehow, like he's giving a little speech of his own. It sounds like a funeral speech. He says to me, "What power does with time travel is a disease, and time travel bestows unspeakable power. A vicious cycle. And the army and the navy are going to tear history apart right from under us, hell-bent on saving it from each other."

"That seems rather a grim attitude," I say. "You'll clog your arteries with talk like that, major, if you don't mind a little health advice from the world's greatest inventor or whatever. Hey, did you guys break my wife's arm? Because she seems upset."

"Damn you!" shouts the major, face flushed. "This entire star system is going to fall up it's own event horizon within two frame-objective days! There's got to be a way to stop it. You're the world authority on time travel. Please, Dr. Sharma -- think! What can we do?"

I shrug in a friendly way. "I honestly don't know, which I'm sure is for the best. But if it helps I'm willing to see that you and your trans-dimensional friends are comped tickets for tonight's big award show. You can sit near the front. I'll be making a speech, and I'm judging the swimsuit part for physics."

The major's shoulders slump but his eyes don't wander from me. His tone is pretty impolite. "Sharma, they've made you a moron in order to save their hold on time travel. They've made study of the subject illegal, and reduced the last of us who might have had a hope in hell of understanding it to cowering in temporal abscesses! But we worked together and we figured out quite a lot. We figured out how to drive a pike into your timeline, so that you could teach us how to save the world from you."

"Oh dear," I say. "That's bound not to work out. Because, like I said, I have a previous engagement and stuff. The limousine's probably already waiting. I bet that's why my wife looks so pissed off. Anyway most of that mathematics jazz I don't really remember. There's a trophy for it in the den, though." I furrow my brow. "Well, there used to be one there, at any rate."

"Ten seconds," reverberates the increasingly insubstantial blurry guy. He counts down: "Ten, six, nine, eight, five, seven..."

The oscillating women look up from their device, merged faces stricken. "Local reality is buckling -- something is happening!"

My wife shoots them all. Clods of grey ash slosh against the bedroom wall and bloom into little slowly falling clouds.

There is a nasty smell.

"Holy smokes!" I exclaim. "That was a really excellent shot, Elissica."


"My mistake."

The complex hole folds back into itself with a loud boom that startles both of us. I examine her arm. I tell her she may have some fragments of ceramic still embedded in the wound, and ask the house whether there's a fully charged nurse afoot. "I feel terrible about all this, I really sort of do. You're not even going to be able to dance properly if you have a sling on. I'll be forced to dance with one of those wretched boring supermodels."

She sighs but she smiles. "It's all part and parcel of sharing life with the most accomplished temporal mechanical visionary genius of all time. But I knew what was in store when I married into science."

"Hot damn. When did you learn to shoot like that?"

She shrugs. "I have no idea! Navy knows best." She stands up and begins beating the dust off her dress. Little copper dressing maids wobble over to assist.

I nod. "Too right, darling. You're an inspiration. We really must take this sort of thing in stride."

"Violent insurgencies happen. It's a fact of life."

"You're so grounded and level-headed. I bet that's one of the reasons I fell in love with you whenever it was we met." I lean in to kiss her and she leans in closer to me, lips parting.

The limo honks. She opens her eyes and giggles. "Oops! Out of time." Off we rush. Along the staircase she asks me if it could be the rebels are right, and reality really is rupturing from all the accumulated strategic adjustments shielding our culture from unpopular turns of events. I open the front door and gesture widely at the world, as normal as I ever remember it being.

Birds sing. The limo idles.

"Seems fine," I report. "Not even raining."

I'm excited. My speech, and my pants, are going to be a big hit.



Mark said...

This one was a lot of fun. And just plain funny.

I only recently read "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" for the first time, and the tone in this one reminded me of that.

Glad to see that your output has increased along with your recent lifestyle change. I hope you are reaping whatever dividends you hoped by making those changes. We the readers certainly are.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Wow. Everything Mark said (with the exception of the Adams timeline). Funny, but dark and disturbing. Kind of like The Truman Show, especially with the wife plants.

I thought of you today, CBB -- you and my fellow audience members -- when I heard that Voyager 1 is on its way out of the solar system. I asked my desk-neighbor, "does that mean it's passing the heliopause?" to which I got a blank look -- at which point I realized that this particular term was introduced to my lexicon by a certain Canadian purveyor of fine fiction. Thank you for expanding our horizons.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Also, this reminds me of the temporal trouble surrounding 4U City in a recent development on Sluggy's plotline. Collapse of the temporal framework, and all that.

SaintPeter said...

I do wonder, though, in the burger verse is there such a thing as a sane, stable genius? We've got this poor guy who's brain is being eaten slowly, we've got Drago who has issues with masturbating in public . . and his girlfriend with control issues. They're all MAD!

Not that I'm complaining really. This story was pretty amusing. Poor bastard. Never let a repressive bureaucracy get a hold of your time machine.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this story; mostly because it took the stereotype scientist and made it a lot more lovable (in my eyes). Taking one for the team seems pretty honorable. Anyways, good job! You should put widgets on all your posted stories so people can socially-plugin 'like' or 'recommend' certain ones- I'd certainly recommend this story to my friends on Facebook.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

Douglas Adams was possessed of a singular wit, and it continues to disappoint me how poorly his work is adapted. The failure of each and every adaptation is a common one: a fundamental misunderstanding of what precisely Adams is presenting as funny.

Imbeciles -- like those responsible for the most recent cinematic attempt at adapting "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" -- believe that the funny hinges on outrageous and silly space thingies that are imaginative and zany, and so present his stories as taking place within a wacky and cooky universe of cartoon-proportioned farce.

This is stupid.

While it is undeniable that Adams had a real talent for the imaginative and zany, the operative notion at the heart of his jokes is the dehumanization and debasement of human beings by humanity. Dignity -- and its cheap imitations -- are a constant thread in the narrative. We experience the universe through the eyes of a mild-mannered man of no exceptional characteristics except numbed acceptance of the cruel absurdity of his fate. The most nightmarish aspects of his experience are at the hands of massive institutions, where the dehumanization process most efficiency separates a human being from his dignity, often due to Rube Goldberg style machinations of unforeseen consequences.

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" isn't about space -- it's about life on Earth, and how mean and absurd it can be. It can only be set in a world that is not only realistic but grittily so, because at its heart the comedy is dark comedy, not silly absurdism. It's "Brazil" not "Spongebob Squarepants."

I'm having déja-vu. I think I'm already ranted about this before.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

I like to try to work "heliopause" into everyday conversation. Because why the fuck not?

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

Poor bastard. Never let a repressive bureaucracy get a hold of your time machine.

Truer words have never been spoken. And, if a temporally irresponsible repressive bureaucracy had its way, they never would be.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Danielle,

Thank you so much for troubling to comment. I tell you, I can't keep up with all that widgets and wodgets everybody wants me to script into everything for e-simplicity. It's not the gadgets' faults, it's mine. My brain is full.

However, for the record, this stuff does go out on FacePalm as well. If you haven't already, please consider friending me on FacePalm to be notified of new material. My username is "Chester Burton Brown."

Please excuse the lateness of my reply. I've been away from the Internet.

Cheeseburger Brown