The Ambiguity Factor
The green blur passing beneath the transparent hull of Peter Lyod's solar powered hovercraft disguised the hundreds of houses spaced evenly throughout the leafy canopy. No telephone wires could be seen.
In fact, the only evidence that anyone lived in the forest was the evenly-spaced clearing for hovercraft like his own. The clearing had smatterings of the latest fashion in landscaping: fuchsia trees.
"God I hate the suburbs," he thought, as he popped a disc labelled "Red Planet Surprise -- Goop!" into the stereo. As the crisp, very non- suburban sounds of Goop! came on, Peter pushed a button marked with a down arrow to let in some air. A red vehicle sped past.
As the wind brushed his hair, Peter thought about the meeting he had just left. He had read and mostly comprehended the ground-breaking paper on Time Distortion Around Massive Objects as soon as it was made available on FreeNet, several years ago. The paper had generated wild- eyed speculation about time travel, which quickly abated when people realized the nearest object massive enough to do the job, a particular galaxy, was mind-bogglingly far away. Even a near-lightspeed ship would take thousands of years to get there. Now it had been discovered that the effect was present around objects of any mass, and the world's first "temporal quanta amplifier" had been built.
Peter's job, along with that of several hundred other media people, was to describe what the marvel of time amps could mean to the rest of the world. It meant that in the year 4491 the human race could contemplate travelling to other galaxies. It meant freedom from the prison of Cartesian three-space (he could think of a few people who had already left Cartesian three-space, but that was another story) and the resolution of some paradoxes in Physics that had been plaguing scientists for hundreds of years. There was a renewed interest in Grand Unified Theories (Lyod's first reaction to this last bit of news was, "maybe there'll be a renewed interest in circle-squaring as well!").
Peter's hovercraft came to a smooth landing on the 30th floor platform of his building in Sioux Falls. His friend Anola had left a message on the videowall: "Honey, I missed you -- hope the meeting went well. I'll be back from class at 6:00 and here's a free demo of what's in store for you."
She undid her top two buttons, blew a him a kiss, tossed her dreadlocks and headed for the door. As soon as the message ended, the videowall turned pale purple.
Peter grabbed an organically grown peach from the fridge and sat on the balcony to gather his thoughts for the news story he would produce. We could now go anywhere anywhen. There was one nagging exception: the past. Backward time travel was thought to break several of the laws of thermodynamics, in particular the fifth and seventh, but the new results showed it to be technically feasible. In addition to the strong argument that there were now so many more interesting destinations to choose from, the World Council had already agreed not to send anyone backward in time to a point before the invention of the time machine out of fear that ancient time paradoxes could come true. He felt intuitively that there must be some way around the "Back To The Future" problem, as they called it.
The videowall displayed some FreeNet artwork by Padma Sanchez -- dinosaurs romping across a wasteland in an infinite loop, running forward but never getting closer. The image was overlapped with time- lapsed footage of fabricated crystalline flowers blossoming, covering the screen then shattering to reveal the dinosaurs again. The soundtrack was like an underwater duel between a tuba and a trombone. He wasn't sure what it meant, but he liked it.
To be able to travel back to the days of dinosaurs. Or to his favorite time in history, the mid- to late- twentieth century. What a blast! His friends didn't understand why he was so fascinated with that time period. "They were so absurdly uncivilized with respect to their technology. Probably the goofiest period in all of history. A television commercial model was President of the United States at the same time they had the biggest nuclear arsenal ever! They got electricity from fission-generated steam! And think of what it would be like to see New York or London or any of the other great port cities before the seismic wave broke up the ice cap in 1993. Right when the greenhouse effect was about to go nonlinear thanks to automobile emissions! How did we ever make it out of that dismal time?"
Just then Anola walked in, put down her computer and stepped out on the balcony. "Peace."
"Peace your own self!"
Then over each other, "How are you?" and "I missed you." After a warm hug Anola said, "Time to meditate."
"Aw Ma', do we have to?"
"Now come along with Auntie Anola and take your shoes off like a good little boy," she replied while lighting some incense.
Actually, Peter loved his daily meditation. Hundreds of years of history had proven its value. It was gradually revealed that Peace was not achievable through the manipulation of tanks, guns, soldiers, or exchanges of tariffs, bank loans, or donations of food and hardware. World Peace did not require supercomputers or artificial intelligence or some great discovery. The hypersaturation of the senses brought on by five-D info transfer required people to go into deep sensory deprivation for an hour a day, and as more people took up the practice, other benefits soon became apparent. People felt full of energy yet relaxed. Outward comparisons and jealousies were erased by inner harmony. Acceptance of the present replaced dissatisfied yearnings for an infinitely regressing future. The limitless conspicuous consumption made possible by the exploitation of the Martian colonies tapered off. The advertising industry went bankrupt.
Above all, competition with the limits of one's self replaced competition with others. When they realized there hadn't been a war in half a century, they called it the Silent Revolution. World Peace began with individuals becoming peaceful one at a time. The economy went through several "severe fluctuations", but had reached a stable state satisfactory to Martians and the Earth-dwellers alike. All needs were provided for, but luxuries cost money. It was often said that the wise forsook luxuries in exchange for freedom. All possessions require maintenance -- things demand the acquisition of more things. Before you know it, all of your time is spent shopping. It was also said that these same people were merely lazy.
It was going on 8:00 and they had been working up an appetite. Peter rolled out of bed and heated up some leftover Thai food. Anola slipped into a white one-piece self-cleaning jumpsuit that looked and felt like a second skin. "If you can't go back in time, why not send a 'message from the future'?" From the eating area he shouted back, "Thought of that -- if we tell them how time travel works, our present won't be the same. Might screw things so royally that you and I'd never meet. Never be born."
"Wouldn't it be O.K. just to let them know what the future could be like? Couldn't you just tell them that time travel is possible without saying how? Then they could figure out the details themselves."
"But Anola, how would I do that?"
Just then the videowall flashed "YOU HAVE A CALLER". It was D-Jing Six, a downstairs neighbor who wanted them to come over to hear his latest acquisition: a 1920's orchestron which he had just restored. D- Jing was a musician who repaired antiques on the side. Ancient keyboard instruments were a specialty and this was a rare find indeed. They flew down to D-Jing's and were ushered into a living room strewn with techno junk. They pulled up some antique plastic crates and watched as D-Jing installed a metal roll into a recess of the orchestron. The sound that poured out of the huge wooden automaton was remarkable. There was a full drum set with cymbals, a wind section whose air came from a cam-driven bellows, and an assortment of chimes and other plucked or struck instruments. D-Jing played along with the roll, stopping every now and then to make some adjustments. It looked like he'd used some of the junk to add a few sounds of his own.
"Where did you find it?"
"Oh, I just beamed back in time and stole it."
D-Jing Six was one of the people who had left Cartesian three-space quite a while ago: one could never tell when he was joking.
Anola's semisweet chocolate skin and white jumpsuit were reflecting blue light from some strange boxes in the corner.
"What are these?"
"That one's a 1950's era oscilloscope and you'll never guess what that other thing is."
"It looks like something out of an ancient sci-fi movie." "Doesn't it? It's a computer terminal circa 1970." "Woa-AH!" exclaimed Anola and Peter in unison. "Look at it. It looks so funny!" They all giggled at the absurdly overbuilt box. As D-Jing kicked over a jar full of nuts and bolts, he said, "You'd be surprised what they could do with these old clunkers. You know, they had a global computer network using satellites and telephone lines. Quite sophisticated, really." "Another weird juxtaposition of technology -- Alexander Graham Bell meets the Space Age." "Yes," replied D-Jing, "they even had these funny little keyboards before we Chinese improved 'em."
"Oh yes, by adding twenty thousand new keys." The trio laughed at the old joke, but the Chinese data input system permanently changed the slowest part of information transfer -- telling the computer what you wanted it to do.
On the way back to the apartment, Anola said "What a junk bin!"
"Yes, but he has some amazing stuff."
"No denying that."
"Listen, Peter, I think I know how you can tell the twentieth century about this future."
"To create enough ambiguity, disguise the message as a science fiction story. Have D-Jing hook his 1970's terminal up to the time amp, and you've got it. the primitive network was connected to all other media outlets, so there you have it."
"Anola, that's brilliant!"
Peter stepped out onto the balcony and began working furiously on his story. As the twilight faded, Anola gently placed a candle on the table.
"You're working as if your life depended on that story."
He looked her dead in the eye and said, "It does."
Pete Reppert wrote "The Ambiguity Factor" for the second issue of InterText back in 1991.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Pete Reppert.