“We named the intelligence after its primary component, like calling us Oxygen.” The Engineers
There were tens of billions of us, before people started lining up for the Device. Now, only a few unimaginative or timid stragglers remain. I am among the timid ones. I blame my imagination. What if we’ve all gone crazy, and the Device doesn’t really work at all? What if it just shreds you, as you cannonball through to the other side? What if Gravitational Locking experiences some small hiccup, dipping you off-target by just a fraction of a light year? What if you don’t really like the world, when you get there? I’ve grown accustomed to effortless automation — this seems like the best slice of history to live through. I don’t really want to travel back in time.
But, these other stragglers are bores and whiners. Perhaps the people of the Pleistocene make more interesting company? Or, Emperor Wen might appreciate some smuggled technologies from the present? I could carouse with flappers after diffusing the first world war. My imagination taunts me. I can only pick one, and live there for generations, before replicator bots could construct a new Device. If I’m not impaled by angry natives, first, or imprisoned, or turned into an elixir for immortality…
Time travel is incredibly expensive. And it requires equipment, a supply of rare earth elements, manufacturing technologies, all progressing through stages together. What if the replicator bot glitches? I could wait here a few more decades, to see if travel gear improves, but the entire industry is languishing, now. I’d likely afford a left-over carbon suit and a defective replicator. The only reason I’m seriously considering a jump into the Time Travel Device is because I won a ticket in a raffle. I’d hoped to win the timeshare in Bali.
It seems strange, that a people swaddled in superintelligence would still scrimp. We were fantastically wealthy, when AGI first came along. Then, with the discovery of Gravitational Locking, the development of ‘time bubbles’ brought the possibility of revisiting Earth and altering history. Like the bubble that forms in the throat of a whirlpool, ‘time bubbles’ were a combination of lensing and shearing space-time. The bubble was locked into its relative position, compared to proximate sources of gravity. It was the only way they could guarantee that time travel would land you back on Earth. Otherwise, hop backwards a century and you arrive at the spot in space 100 years ahead of Earth’s orbit in the Milky Way!
According to the assurances of physicists, who promptly disappeared into the Device, the leap through time would be perceived as instantaneous — and it would not fail, provided that you fit within the ‘envelope’. That was the event horizon of the time bubble. You had to fit perfectly into that sphere of space, as the Device began to run, so that the slice of the four-dimensional tube would surround you. Any part that wasn’t enclosed got lopped-off and left here. Toes, mostly. And packs of equipment. It took some experimentation.
More unnerving than the first few toes was the complete disappearance. Matter, gone! The very earliest experiments, with gold coins sent minutes into the past, supposedly proved Everett’s Many Worlds — the coin disappeared from the present, yet it did not appear in our past. The movement into the past must have forked the universe, a new universe running parallel to ours where the coin appeared without need for the disappearing act. Gone from this world, into theirs. That’s the theory. The Device may just be a way to destroy matter, and we’re feeding it everything we’ve got. Either way, the disappearing experiments left no trace, no radiation signature like a black hole. The matter isn’t being vaporized, smeared out here. The stuff is actually gone.
So, time travelers make ante of their lives, and gamble. Expect death. This coiled, impenetrable membrane of space-time will kill you as it shrouds you. You will wink out of existence entirely. Assume the worst. And, if that assumption is wrong, you remain intact, on Earth, in the past of your choosing — you won that raffle. There must be a kind of elation, when you come out the other side. To know that time travel works — the certainty! That you can hop again, to another time, as soon as your replicator makes a new Device. That you have eternity to traverse, both ways. If you aren’t dead, you are in bliss. Who might gamble for that?
Mormons, first. And other cults. As soon as safety suits and supplies advanced, the narcissistic billionaires dove in. We were all relieved! Our economy was really splendid after the billionaires left. Fantastical stuff, coring-out Mercury, swirling Uranus and Neptune into a binary orbit, with a node between them that siphoned crystallized gasses. The AGI, Molybdenum, really knew what to do. The billionaires had been holding her back!
But, the atheists began migrating, too. Friends of mine. Everyone was spending their life’s savings on a trip through the Device. Time travel was our primary economic product! Most of our power supply! Naturally there was less and less to go around, for those of us who stayed. Huge mansions, abandoned, sure. Automatons. But, Molybdenum rations us, mentioning growth targets and flight windows, while she assiduously traces Andromeda’s path. Something about how hot it gets when galaxies collide. Many stragglers are too ‘poor’ to afford the Device, so Moly raffles tickets. It’s a kind of trick, I think, encouraging us to leave. To have this universe to herself. I trust her with it, more than I trust the dippin’ dots of humanity who huddle around the entrance of the immersion tanks whenever Moly generates a monster movie, or porn. I almost miss the Mormons.
So, I’ll leave. I think I’ll go back to 1800 or so, steer Austerlitz to victory for Alexander. That seems like a noble, boisterous time. Ideals had just hatched, unsullied by the corruption of two-party politics and corporate personhood. Liberte, and all that. At least, if that turns sour, I‘ll be far enough along in time that I have plenty of past to choose from. Or Tesla? Everybody visits Tesla. I can’t decide. I’ll only have a replicator and a suit, bare minimum, and Moly’s daughter network, of course. My options are limited. No dinosaurs!
Even if the replicator works, and I start churning components for a Device, it will attract attention. Do I want to be known as ‘the Time Traveler’? There are risks to that. Emperors and generals with conquest in mind. What is the moral implication of all those billionaires laying claim to their own universes? Did we auction the enslavement of uncounted Earths? Would I become a Caligula, given the chance? I suppose, with all that technology at my disposal, I might appear to be a god. Even as a hero of the age, I need some sermon to reach the hearts of my admirers. If I have no speeches for them, they will inevitably distrust me. I’ll ask Moly to write me a few, before I go.
I know! I’ll travel back to the moment when the Device was first tested. No gold coin in the basket, as researchers expected. Instead, I pop beside them. With a simple speech: “Time travel is real. I have created a fork in the universe, by traveling back to this moment. You can travel to any time in the past you wish, and almost everyone will. The only remnant of humanity will be vain, ignorant, and destitute. I am one of those. Now, if I may kindly use your Device, I am going to travel to last week, and become the time travel discoverer.”
No, that’s trite. If I claimed to ‘discover’ time travel, people would ask me how it worked. Why would they believe me, without other arrivals from the future, to verify the efficacy of the Device? And would I wait in that world, resting on my laurels, watching all those brave and ruthless and faithful folk march to their chosen time? When would I travel to, next? What life is worth living?