I’m not a scientist. I’m an ethicist.
Science is like war, I think, although I’ve never been in a war. We sit around and train, and think, and prepare for what we think we will need to prepare for. We think about what we don’t think we will need to prepare for, and we try to prepare for that too. It becomes something of a system-- a routine. If we can quantify the unknown then it isn’t so scary.
Barbara tells me that when the first nuclear bomb was detonated, people didn’t know if it would ever stop. She’s an old woman with a history and a Brooklyn accent. We’re sitting outside for brunch under a tree, and she’s smiling at me matter-of-factly. She explains that a nuclear bomb uses pieces of atoms. When they collide into other atoms, pieces of those atoms fly off and run into more atoms.
“Some people figured the reaction would just-” she gestures with her arms, “continue until the entire world becomes just that: pieces of atoms.”
People can sit around and hypothesis and think for eternity, but we won't really know what happens when the bomb goes off until it drops.
Today the bomb drops.
It is a metaphoric bomb. One that is a bit difficult to explain because it is a bit difficult to understand, and I'm not a scientist; I'm an ethicist.
Brian, he's kind of the leader of this project, explained it to me when he was first asking me to be a part of the crew. He has a way of making difficult concepts easy to understand. He makes science as approachable as he is.
Brian's a very huggable man. He wears tacky shirts and drinks micro brewed beers. He has a well kept beard that he rubs when he's listening to you. He listens to audiobooks on his phone and sometimes he just starts giggling in the back of the room for no reason. He tells me that 80% of science is about people and that that's something that most people going into science don't understand. He says he's mostly just a nerd translator.
I'm not going to do his description of this justice, but hopefully enough will come through to make some sense.
Imagine there is someone 150 years in the future who can send you a postcard. You can ask him/her any question you want; however they can only respond using this single postcard. Secondly, what the future person can write on the postcard is extraordinarily limited. The card has six numbered check boxes, and they can either check them off, or leave them blank. That's it. So basically you can ask six yes or no questions, but the only answer you'll get is a yes or a no. Brian points out that this is very limiting, you can ask if you are going to die of natural causes, yes or no, but, if you die of cancer from smoking cigarettes, how would you answer that? That’s kind of ambiguous. You wouldn’t have the opportunity to explain this ambiguity, let alone allude to it. “There is a simple work-around of course,” Brian offers,
“you could combine questions to get something of a more nuanced answer. For example, you could ask ‘is the following answer ambiguous?’ for one question and then ask the question about your death. If you get a ‘no’ for the first question and a ‘yes’ for the second, than you would know that you die of natural causes, unambiguously. AND, even though we receive this metaphorical postcard at a specific date, we don’t actually have to ask all the questions by that date. As long as the question is asked sometime before the hundred-and-fifty years are up, the sender of the question-- excuse me-- postcard, can answer that question too. So you could ask follow up questions. For example we might ask ‘do we put a human on Mars in the next hundred-and-fifty years?’ That’s the kind of question that if we were to get a yes-answer we might want to ask some follow up questions, like ‘was it facilitated by a private company?’ or ‘were there follow up missions?’ and ‘what were the political implica--’ well I guess we wouldn’t ask that. You get my point.”
I nod at him enthusiastically. It’s a lot to process, and I don’t think I really understand.
“The other thing is if you were to get a ‘no’ answer on the whole Mars mission thing, you might want to ask different follow up questions. For example, ‘was there a failed attempt?’ This gives us a lot of opportunity, and avoids asking redundant or useless questions. You wouldn’t want to ask if the United States were the first to get a person on Mars if you already know that nobody’s been to Mars. This also gives us the weird consequence of having all the answers to questions before we ask them.”
I consider this for a moment.
“How are-- who’s… How are we electing questions to ask?”
“I really like that word, ‘electing.’ I want to make it democratic, do something online where we ask for questions. I know the internet isn’t exactly known for taking online things seriously, but if we make the rules strict enough, and hopefully this is heavy enough stuff to not fuck with. I have faith.”
“But wouldn’t. Would we ask everybody to come up with questions and then take the top six all at once, or would we ask everybody to come up with questions and then do them one at a time?”
“One at a time”
“So what’s, say, what’s stopping people people from just asking questions because they want to get a certain answer? Like if we have all the answers ahead of time, and everybody can see that the next one is ‘no’, what’s keeping people from just asking a question that they want to get a ‘no’ answer out of. Like if a bunch of people don’t like the current president they could just ask if the president is going to serve for a whole term. If the answer is already ‘no’ than they would be basically voting on ensuring some future event. We could also ask for impossible things too, I guess. Like if we really wanted to get to Mars, couldn’t we just ask ‘are we going to get to Mars?’ for one of the yes-answers, and then ensure that we get to Mars? And then if we don’t, does it create some sort of time paradox where we can’t answer the questions?”
He’s smiling at me very broadly, and leaning back into his chair.
“This is why I want you on the team, ‘Liz. These are the kind of questions that we need to be asking ourselves. Um, as for the the first question, I want to build in a mechanism that prevents people from doing that. It’s quite simple, actually, and it’s part of the reason I need you. We don’t tell the public what the answers to the questions are. When the team is assembled, we will be the only people who know the answers to all the questions, and we keep that absolutely secret. What we do do is release the answers to each of the questions as they are elected upon. That way we can ensure that the answers to all of the questions play no part in influencing people’s question asking.
“The other thing that we-- I’ve done some thinking into the whole ‘time paradox’ thing, and this is a little hard to explain without going into the underlying science, but I’m fairly confident that that’s a possibility we don’t really have to worry about. What I will say is this, the hope is to set up seven checkboxes, not six. The first one would acts as a sort of place holder and insurance. It would be a predetermined question that we might not even tell the public about. The question would be ‘did it work?’ If that comes back as a yes, than we can tell the public about it with confidence. It’s also the last question that we answer, after we know how the whole thing panned out. Let’s say, as in your example, people ask if the president lasts all four years because they like the no-answer, in this case when the president finishes all four years, we know something went wrong, so we leave the president question blank, to maintain the time space continuum, or whatever. In addition, we leave the ‘did it all work out?’ question blank. But at the end of the day I don’t really know what will happen, of course.”
So I joined the team.
There’s tons of people involved in this project. Facilities managers and engineers and security personal. The campus is in the middle of an Arizona desert, which is good because a lot of the energy used here is solar. We have to be at least partially energy independent, because in order for this to work we need to keep some facilities running constantly for up to 150 years. I really couldn’t tell you about the underlying science, except that it’s often stressed to me that we are sending only information back in time not anything physical, and that for each of the seven metaphorical checkboxes, there’s a thing called a MCIER that we have, which keeps temperatures at three degrees kelvin or less. Keeping the MCIER units running is the job of most people here.
I wouldn’t know the first thing about keeping a MCIER running. I barely know how to fake my way through a conversation with the people who work here.
I’m part of Brimstone, which makes me a big-wig. There’s six of us total: Brian, Barbra, Me, Jacque, Steven, and Thomas. Brimstone's the result of Brian's dedication to caution. Even though Brian is the head of this project, he’s not technically in charge. Power lies within the six of us, and we have to unanimously agree on any decision in order to enact it. It’s a way to keep power decentralized. In theory we all serve some specific function, but I don’t really know what each person’s is.
Jacque is an excitable frenchman with an eclectic and constantly improving vocabulary. He’s also kind of a mess, a character which he fulfills so well that it’s hard to remember he’s a real person.
Steven, I have a hard time with. I think it has to do with our intersections of understanding. That’s kind of a weird phrase that warrants an explanation. Intelligence is sort of like a venn diagram. Towards the middle are things that most people are capable of, like basic sentence construction and math. There’s sort of an average person circle that includes a bit of everything. Some mathematical thinking, some language comprehension, some creative understanding, some people stuff. I’m pretty smart in certain ways. I’m pretty quick at memorization, I know basic Spanish and can remember people's names. I have an average understanding of math, I know how percentages work, but I have to work out most things, even basic addition, on paper. If you were to draw a circle around my understandings it would encompass most of the average person stuff as well as a lot of interpersonal stuff. I get people and emotions in an intuitive way. I’m above average intelligence. I would have an above average circle. I think probably Steven’s circle and my circle are around the same size, but his is almost entirely dedicated to science and math. It works out so that there’s like, no intersection. I’m almost all emotions and people and he has so little in that area that we can’t even really have a conversation. Nerd translator.
Thomas is growing into a mad-scientist. He’s middle aged and his hair is greying and it’s like he’s in this awkward transition phase before he goes full-on nutty-old-man. He’s trying, but his memory is too good and he needs to get glasses, even if he can still see fine. He has a bike that he rides here, even though it’s like 100 degrees out.
Barbara and Brian I’ve already talked about.
The morning of the 20th came sooner than any of us expected. We’re scheduled to go into the MCIER information reception room at 11, and we’re supposed to meet up at 10 to go over procedure and talk or whatever. So that means I show up at 8 because I don’t want to be late and what if the half-hour drive ends up taking two-and-a-half hours? I’ve never been to the campus this early, and it’s weirdly quiet. Thomas is already here and he has a table set up with coffee and tea from Whole Foods. He’s reading.
We start talking about the Stranger, by Camus for some reason. Making small talk with people in this kind of context is weird. We’re both not fully present to the conversation because we’re both thinking about what’s going to happen today. Some lankey character named Emily, who I think is a custodian, takes coffee and joins the conversation. Somehow it turns into debating the specifics on Notes from the Underground, which I haven’t heard of, let alone read.
Steven shows up at 9:16, which is funny to Steven and Thomas for some reason. This prompts Emily to go back to work. They start talking about French Revolutionary Time.
A little after 9:30 I head up towards the conference room. I’m a bit surprised to find Brain and Barbra already here. They’re both slumped over. Barbra starts mumbling a little bit incoherently about breakfast.
“How long have you guys been here?”
They both look at each other and start laughing.
“All day! All day! All--All night!”
“Weeee’ve been here ssince yesterday”
Brian starts massaging the space in between his eyes as Barbra breaks into another fit of laughter. Brian’s wearing a big, dochie cowboy-hat that falls over his face onto the floor, and he breaks out chuckling. I can’t help but smile at this. There’s something very enduring about whatever’s going on.
“How much have you guys had to drink?”
Brian looks up at me, smiling. He takes some time to gain composure.
“We haven’t had anything to drink. Well, not really. I mean--I had a beer or two, but… we’re just strung out. We we we, we kind of--we pulled an all nighter, man.”
Brian gives me this big sheepish grin.
Thomas walks in and acts completely unphased. He tells Brian that it’s a nice hat. Steven is excitedly walking right into Thomas, continuing the conversation the two of them were having. He’s 100% oblivious to the situation. I ask Brian why he’s wearing the hat, and he tells me that he’s keeping a promise with his 5-year-old self. He asks Barbara a question that I can’t hear over Steven. It’s after ten.
Brian goes over his agenda, which is typical for these kind of meetings. First he wants to go over procedure and remind us of the rules. Second we’re to talk about what we expect to find today, which is not a new topic. Finally, general questions and concerns, selfie time, and there’s a surprise for today.
The rules are actually quite strict, which is cautionary. We each have two copies of a unique key-card, all of which need to be present in order to view the results, which we’re doing today. We also all need to be present with our key cards in order to check off a metaphoric box. We cannot check off a box unless everybody is present and consenting. If we elect an answer to one of the checkboxes, which we unanimously agree on, we can turn that MCIER off because it’s served its function. We also all have second people in command, in case we die, our key cards will be given to them. Brian asks us if we all brought our key cards, which of course we have, it was the single most stressed instruction for today. We are also strictly prohibited from sharing any information about what’s going on behind scenes. Even to our spouses. If we are found in violation, the rest of Brimstone will vote to not only kick us off, but to enact a serious financial penalty.
We move into the expectations section of the meeting. What do we think we will be greeted with when we go into the room today? The general consensus has been that it will not work. Mainly, the first and fundamental control question box of “did everything work, was every question answered correctly?” will be a “no”. There’s a lot of room for error; if a single MCIER has a power failure for even one tenth of a second than that whole checkbox will not work, and we’ll have no way of knowing which of the checkboxes were unsuccessful because failure and an intentional “no” are indistinguishable.
The door opens suddenly. It’s Jacque. Brian looks from Jacque’s head to the clock above it, and Jacque turns to look, too. It’s 10:41. Steven starts going into this whole lecture about coming on time, and how he just wants Jacque to know how his actions affects others. Brian makes eye contact with me and gives me this knowing look. Except I don’t know. I just smile back at him. We go over briefly what Jacque missed before continuing into the general discussion.
Barbra says that she wants to take a moment to appreciate each of us by name, which is really sweet. The general discussion turns into a group love session, where we all talk about what we love and appreciate about each of the members of the team, one by one. It actually gets really sentimental. The discussion goes to me and I actually started tearing up.
Thomas talked about this time that I was getting really upset and realized that I was stressed about other things and apologised, and how emotionally aware I am, and how happy he is that I am part of the team. It’s hard to explain, but it was exactly what I needed to hear right at that moment. Steven said that he liked how I told this funny story once about how I used to live in a crappy apartment by the airport, and that I’m funny, and that he thinks about me whenever he draws airplanes, which was sentimental too, in a weird way. I’m feeling really good about this group of people, like I’m actually part of this band of misfit super geniuses. Brian reveals the surprise part of the morning’s agenda. He has home-made doughnuts and coffee for all of us. We took a lot of group photos. It’s a big day.
At around 11:15 we head up to the MCIER information reception room. The last time we went into this room was before anything was up and running, and that includes all of the security procedures. I hold my breath as we all put our key cards up, but of course it works.
The MCIER information reception room is at the end of a long descending metal hallway. It’s loud and utilitarian and kind of a tight squeeze. It feels like the inside of a boat. I think it’s because of the metal grading on the floor. When we get inside the main room the noise level only intensifies. It sounds like someone inhaling, slowly, through a fan. Except the person is a giant, and we are inside their lungs. The main chamber is circular with controls in the center. It’s dark and very cold. The only way in or out is through the long descending hallway.
Brian instructs us to slide our key cards into slots around the control panel. He’s kind of shouting above the noise. We do so, and a light blinks green. Brian puts his hand over a button. When he pushes it, computers will start analyzing the MCIER units. There are seven lights, one for each MCIER, and if the MCIER comes back positive the light will go green. If it comes back negative the light will go red. He shouts something I don’t quite hear. We’re counting down. 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. He pushes down.
A staggered buzzing sound starts up, and I can feel vibrations through the floor. I look around because I don’t know where the lights are located. A bright green light flickers on. The light is over the door, and it casts exaggerated shadows across the whole room. I can see Brian’s hat made gigantic on the wall. Another light starts to flicker on. It too, is located high up on the wall. It’s red and next to it is written the number 2. The red and green cast contrasting shadows, and lights up everybody’s faces in a dramatic way. I look to see what number is written next to the green light. It reads “CTRL”.
The next two lights start to come on as well. It’s numbers 5 and 6. The whole room is not a circle, but heptagon, with each wall leading to a MCIER unit. MCIER 5 and 6 both come back red too. 1, 3, and 4 all come on overlapping each other. Every single light is red except the control. Within a two minute span we went from relative darkness to this almost blinding red light. The light is sharp, and repeating geometric patterns are created around the room in shadows. I make eye-contact with Jacque who’s pale and rubbing his arms. I realize I’m freezing my ass off, and I’m glad when Brian starts to lead the way out.
We walk back to the conference-type room where we came from, in complete silence. When we open the door everything’s just how we left it. Half-eaten doughnuts on napkins and a coat on the back of a chair. There’s something sinister about the scene. Like the sight left after nuclear disaster strikes and everybody has to stop what they’re doing and leave. I can’t tell if the tension I’m feeling is communal or personal. I don’t really know what any of it means and I think we all don’t. Brian closes and locks the door and goes over to the front of the room. He writes “CTRL” in big green letters, followed by the numbers 1 through 6 in red. He slumps back into a chair. He’s frantic.
To say the results were surprising is an understatement. Frankly, we were all expecting the control question to come back negative because that seemed like the most likely scenario. As far as these things go, it’s not too crazy that it all worked out, which it must of for the control question to come back positive. What’s weird is the six ‘no’s. What that means is that for literally every question the public will ask, the answer will be no. Steven runs the numbers in his head quickly. There’s a 1 out of 64 chance that all of the answers will come back no. Far from impossible, but unlikely to say the least. Thomas explains that literally any combination of answers would be a 1 out of 64 chance and that the only difference between this and anything else is our pattern recognition abilities. I can’t say I fully understand what he’s saying. Jacque announces that he needs to take a smoke. I don’t smoke, but I’m inclined to agree with him. I follow him outside for some fresh air.
It’s cloudy. Jacque lights one up and starts pacing back and forth. We can’t talk about what’s going on outside, for fear of being overheard. He resorts to muttering that he doesn’t like the way “the situation rubs.” He keeps saying “the situation rubs the wrong way.” and that “the situation rides me uncomfortably.” I just nod at him. When he’s done with the smoke we head back inside.
The door to the conference room is open. Everybody’s shuffling around and Brian tells me that we’re taking a break for lunch and to meet back here at 1:30. He gives me finger guns, rubs his eyes, than says, more to himself than me, “I need to take a nap, that’s what I need.” I need one too.
I go out with Barbra and Jacque to La Taqueria Autentica, which is hardly a Taqueria, let alone authentic. I’m feeling kind of drained so I listen in as the two of them have a half-hearted conversation about the irregularities of the English language. I keep drinking so much water that I have to go to the bathroom three times. It’s been a really intense day, with a lot of different and extreme emotions and all I want is to go to bed. It’s like 12:15.
The rest of the day is kind of a blur. We meet back up and discuss things, but no one, save for Steven, is really into it. We decide that it probably was a success, but that we should check to make sure all of the systems are working correctly and that there was no mistakes. There was plenty of reviewing of systems going into this project, but with the suspicious results, it’s better to be safe. On the 22nd of next month we’re going to open up question-asking forums on the internet, and alert the media to our success. That gives us plenty of time to review systems and make sure there’s no new concerns that come up before we go public. It’s looking really promising, and there’s a lot to process, but a big part of me, the part that’s not exhausted, is really excited. We all leave feeling optimistic.
Brian’s prediction, the one where the internet could be trusted with matters this serious, came true. Questions of all sort started flowing in. At first questions were short-term, like who’s going to win elections in the next year. There was a brief time in which trolly questions became popular. “Do you know that you are in a coma and everybody and everything you love is an illusion?” was the number one question for a couple of days. We kept numbers on demographics, and it was interesting to see what different countries were concerned with. China asked a lot of questions, but they weren't at all political. At first Brian thought that there was censorship involved, but after running numbers it was determined to be legitimate. The United States asked mostly US-centric questions; the funny thing is Mexico and other westernized third-world countries supported these questions. Optimistic questions, like “will there be a major advancement in artificial intelligence in the next fifty years?” and “will there be a manned mission to Mars in the next hundred and fifty years?” typically came from Scandinavian countries. The question asking phase lasted for 30 days. When all was said and done we were left with our first question.
“Will a great power war erupt within the next fifteen years?”
It’s a weird experience to watch questions float around, knowing what the answer will be. Knowing that the answer will be “no”, I was relieved when the winning question was one that I wanted to be negative. We all were. There was a mini party we threw for the staff of the building, not just Brimstone. It was lame.
After a month the next questions started coming in. The two top questions where “will there be a manned mission to Mars in the next hundred and fifty years?” and “will France leave the European Union?”. Thomas and I got super drunk the last day of voting and just sat in the conference room yelling at a laptop to choose the France question. It’s kind of dumb in retrospect, because eventually people were probably going to elect the Mars question. We had our way, though. And on the following day Brimstone announced in a press conference that France will not leave the EU.
Things were getting weird, though. There’s some unfortunate ambiguity within the great power war question. Like what constitutes a “great power”? And do proxy wars count? I don’t understand global politics, but those who do started having serious suspicions about the “great power” question.
“The South China Sea war is a great power war!”
Steven is explaining to me, frustrated at my lack of understanding of the nuances of international politics.
“I’m trying really hard to understand you right now, Steven, but you’re not making it easy. Who are the great powers fighting in the South China Sea war? That’s all I want to know.”
“China and Japan.”
“Okay. So. Japan is a great power then?”
“Well that a little disputed--” Brian starts before Steven shushes him.
“Japan is absolutely a great power. Japan is a great power!”
Brian rolls his eyes.
“Okay,” I continue, “Japan and China are great powers and they’re fighting. Got it. Where are they fighting and what over?”
“The South China Sea!”
“They’re fighting in the South China Sea?”
“No! They’re fighting in Taiwan. China and Japan are fighting over the South China Sea in Taiwan.”
“The war is about the South China Sea, but it’s happening in Taiwan.”
“Yes,” he says, as if somehow that clears everything up.
“But if they’re fighting in Taiwan doesn’t that make it a proxy war?”
This was the wrong question. “NO! Taiwan is PART of China! They’re fighting in China, which makes just a normal goddam war that’s happening in China!”
“I thought the war was between China and Taiwan. Wasn’t it? I thought it was between China and Taiwan at first and then now Japan got involved.”
“You just said Taiwan is part of China! How could the war be between Taiwan and China if Taiwan is China?”
“Taiwan is part of the Republic of China, but not the People’s Republic of China. The war was between the state of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. It’s like if we got in a war with Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico, and Japan started fighting for Puerto Rico.”
“What? What? You’re, wait, you’re saying that if we, the United States, started a war in Puerto Rico, that would make it a great power war?”
“No, it wasn’t a great power war when China was fighting Taiwan. It’s a great power war because China and Japan are fighting.”
“--in Taiwan, which is part of China.”
“But Japan is supporting Taiwan, which is fighting against the People’s Republic of China, even though Taiwan is part of China.”
“So it’s like a civil war then?”
“No! The war is happening in Taiwan.”
Brian interject. “Okay! Okay. Steven? I need you to take some deep breaths right now. You can’t blame Elizabeth for having a hard time wrapping her head around this. It’s not exactly easy to understand, and frankly, you’re not making it any easier.”
“But, but! I--It’s not! It’s not!”
“Steven, you’re not listening. I need you to take a breath, can you do that for me?”
Steven nods and starts breathing loudly. He’s calmed down a bit. Brian smiles at him in an endearing manner.
“Steven, buddy, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re not a political science expert. You’re a computer scientist, and even that’s debatable; I’ve seen some of your code.”
Steven starts laughing and nodding, avoiding eye contact.
“Steven. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I want you to, just think about how binary you’re making this. Even political scientists are in heated arguments, and you’re working off of a lot of assumptions. Not everybody thinks that Japan is a world power; not everybody thinks that civil war counts. Hell, not even everybody thinks this is a war. I’m inclined to label it as a conflict.
“I also want you to think about your part in this. We wouldn’t have that ‘no’ answer there for that question unless we all unanimously agreed on it. And that means you too, dude. I know it’s frustrating to not understand that right now, but I promise you will okay? We’re going to get to the bottom of this through talking, okay?”
Brian gets a nod.
Later I find him (Brian) outside, smoking a cigarette with Jacque. Brian’s clearly agitated, he’s pacing. He gives me a smile; I can see dark spots around his eyes, and I sit down.
“Hey ‘Liz. … You know, it’s not easy for me too.” He says. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know why we got that ‘no’ answer. I just. Sorry.”
“It’s okay, you are okay” Jacque says. He’s sitting in a very casual position.
“It’s hard, you know?”
“I gotta be like, the leader! I don’t know what the fucks going on, and I have to maintain this, like, image of the guy who knows what’s happening. I got, fuckin’, fifty newspapers and news networks calling up my ass asking me to explain what’s going on, and how the hell all this works, and I don’t know. I just got to maintain composure and say the same goddam shit all the time, ‘I can reassure you that we--we have the best people on the job. I know some of our answer may seem confusing now, but I’m positive that they are all intentional.’ These people ask me about how this whole operation works and why don’t I just say what’s going on, and they keep asking me over and over if I’m positive that I know what I’m doing, and you know what I say, ‘yes.’ I tell them ‘yes’ I know what’s going on because that goddamn control question came back positive, and there’s no way in living hell that it came out that way unless it was on purpose, so something must of gone right, but I don’t know what it is, and then I secretly have my doubts too! I can’t be publicly doubtful, none of us can, although not all of us are going on TV. I can’t tell my wife what’s going on, because we’re sworn to secrecy, and then with the one, fucking group of people I can talk to, because they’re the only other people that knows what’s going on, I can’t even be worried in front of because it’s full of frustrated nerds, and I have to be the one to say, ‘take a breath Steven, you’re okay’ because even though it’s not that way on paper, we all know I’m still like the boss and if the group loses trust in eachother who’s to blame? It’s me. But you know the worst, fucking, part of all this? I don’t even trust the group fully! Like, don’t you think it’s a little weird that all the questions came back negative, and now we got a war going on in China or whatever? But I can’t help but think like, ‘what if the group’s not to be trusted?’ you know? Like I can’t help but entertain the idea that it’s no accident that it all came out the way it did, and what if, I don’t know, what if somebody decided they wanted to sabotage this whole project that I’ve spent my life working towards because they’re being paid thirteen million dollars from the Russian government, and they come in with a gun and kill or threaten to kill everybody unless they give up their key cards? It’s a possibility, but I can’t even afford to think about it because I need to trust everybody, and I do. I trust everybody with my life, and it’s my job to keep everybody else trusting each other too.”
He takes some deep breaths and inhales his cigarette. Jacque’s still sitting all casual, and he just shakes his head.
“This Steven man, he is, how do you say, he is an idiot.” He shakes his cigarette at Brian. “But you my friend, you really are truly… eh-stupid.” Jacque speaks better English than he is now; it’s like he’s playing the part of a Frenchman. Brian sits down between us and throws his hands up.
Then France left the EU.
People often remember where and when they were when tragedy strikes. I was at a mediocre sportsy restaurant with my Aunt. It’s this place that’s part of a kitschy outdoor mall with a modern stone water fountain out front. She has lupus, has for over 15 years now. I just turned down her half of a hamburger because she put so much salt in it that I can’t help but picture people drowning in the dead sea, which has lost its salt content in order to keep up her dietary demands. I looked up at a TV, which had the news on it. I read the headline “FRANCE VOTES TO LEAVE E.U. IN HISTORIC DIVORCE.”
She looks at me with a slow expression of disgust and surprise, as if it’s a shocker that a young woman such as myself is capable of such crude language. I immediately call Brian, but just get a busy signal. My Aunt’s just looking at me with this patronizing smile.
“You shouldn’t take your work so seriously, deary. It really isn’t healthy.”
I don’t have time to try and explain that what’s going on is of international historic importance.
My phone starts ringing.
“I know. We’re having an emergency meeting. How soon can you come?”
“I mean, soon.” Whatever those words mean.
I make us leave, immediately. My Aunt is forced to sit in the passenger seat as we drive recklessly fast towards the campus, because there’s only one car. I’m so concentrated on getting there. Like I can’t afford to think about anything because I need to finish this task, and if I concentrate on anything else I don’t know what might happen, so I have to keep my mind completely, completely occupied with driving. This manifests itself in me ignoring my Aunt’s questions and frantic pleas to slow down.
We get to the campus and I through the keys at her.
“Do whatever you want! I have to go. There’s a cafeteria.”
She shouts at me as I run away from her.
I run into Barbra on my way into the conference room. She has her lips pursed. We exchange no words, only glances. There’s the weird sense of urgency; I couldn’t tell you what I’m so impatient for. An explanation?
Within a half hour of my arrival, everybody showed up. If you were to record the six of us in the room, you could use the tape as a textbook example of the Kübler-Ross model, which is commonly known as the five stages of grief.
Stage 1: Denial.
“It’s wrong,” Jacque declares matter-of-factly. Barbra nods as if partially in thought. It’s an attractive statement, partly because of its ambiguity. What’s “it”? Jacque lights up a cigarette, even though we’re inside. Nobody comments.
“There’s a logical explanation for all of this.” Brian says.
“I bet France isn’t really leaving the EU.”
“We’re probably getting the facts wrong. We probably misread the news.”
We all misread different news sources and got the same exact misinformation? No one makes any effort to check online to make sure.
Stage 2: Anger.
Jacque’s the first one to reach this stage. Infact, I think smoking inside is out of anger. He starts making increasingly aggressive remarks about everybody and everything. He’s acting cool, but it’s a shallow front.
“You are a stupid, immature little boy”
He says, probably to Steven. As if he’s not being stupid and imature by expressing this. Barbara gets up and leaves the room without explanation.
Steven who’s been rocking back and forth for awhile now explodes. He doesn’t even try to say anything. He just screams at the top of his lungs, an ear piercing, defining scream. He’s red and starts shaking a chair before throwing it to the ground. Now he’s on the floor, still screaming and pounding his fists on the ground. It’s so extremely loud and dramatic, so intense, that it grounds the rest of us. I look from Jacque to Brian to Thomas. It occurs to me how strangely everybody is dressed. Brian’s in what looks like pajamas, and Thomas is in a literal tuxedo. I wonder what everybody was doing before being interrupted by this. Thomas makes eye contact with me and bites his lip, almost sexually.
“Everybody scream!” he yells.
We all break out screaming, in a circle around Steven, who’s still on the ground. It’s primordial. This lasts for what feels like five minutes. By the time we’re done screaming Steven is looking up at us confused. He starts giggling in this really dorky way. It’s contagious, and we end up laughing, and trying to scream while laughing.
Barbara comes in.
“I’ve missed something.”
Steven grabs hold of my leg unexpectedly, and pulls me to the ground. I fall on my side and hit a chair on the way down. It hurts like hell, and I cannot understand why he just did it.
“Ow. Fuck, that hurts like a bitch!”
Steven starts laughing and I glower at him. That shuts him down, real quick.
“Why did you do that? What was that for?”
He just starts apologizing profusely, but doesn’t offer much of an explanation. Barbara leaves again.
Stage 3: Bargaining.
I’m sitting on a chair, icing my leg with an industrial bag of frozen pork pot stickers. Scavenged by Barbra.
“Do you think, maybe, we could ask the French to not?”
“Jacque, you’re French. Can you ask France to please refrain from being stupid?”
“Ah, oui. J'ai le numéro du président sur la numérotation abrégée… NO.”
Jacque says, giving us an exaggerated shrug.
“You’re leaking pork juice.”
Stage 4: Depression.
“‘Liz. You’re leaking pork juice.”
I look down at the bag, and in doing so pour a bunch of thawing pork pot stickers onto the floor. I end up just, kind of, staring at them, not really comprehending.
Brian starts sobbing. Really sobbing. Hard. It’s difficult to listen to, partly because his voice is a little hoarse from screaming so much. This was his whole life. This was his magnum opus. He spent a lifetime studying science, doing experiments, and begging for money. So much money.
It’s really sad. When you think about it. None of us really know what went wrong. This whole campus, all the people who work here, my job, all of the money and research that went into this. All completely wasted. It’s devastating, not just in the context of this project, but for science. The last thing science needs on its hands is a dramatic failure this big.
Stage 5: Acceptance.
Brian tells us all to meet back here by 4:30. We have to figure out, to the best of our abilities, what happened and what went wrong, and discuss how to move forward.
I take a long walk, around the building. I go down and into corridors that I’ve never been to before. There’s a long white hallway with blue tape on the wall that reads “PIKLE MAKE SQUISHY BOOKMARK!” and under that “NI K VAS HE”. I think about all of the people and relationships that are housed here, and how little I know of them of their lives. I started crying. Softly. I get lost and ended up in this fireproof starwell. When I went to leave, the door I came in through was locked. I went down a flight of stairs, but that door was locked too. I ended up having to go all the way down to the ground floor, which opened up outside. When I re-enter the building, now no longer lost, I’m greeted by my Aunt. She is not happy with me, and is not afraid to express this. She tells me that she is leaving this minute, weather I like it or not. I tell her she has the keys and can leave whenever she wants. This pisses her off even more, and she storms out of the building. I make my way back to the conference room.
At 4:30 we regroup. Brian starts trying to initiate this conversation in which he’s requesting us to brainstorm all of the possible reasons things turned out the way they did.
“Somhow its not wrong”
Brian writes on the board.
“I’m sorry. Wait, what are we doing?”
Jacque asks looking up.
“We’re brainstorming reasons things went the way that they did.”
“Humph. Maybe it’s, maybe this is, maybe it went right. And France is actually not leaving the EU somehow”
“Yes that’s why he wrote ‘somehow it’s not wrong’ on the board” Barbera retorts.
Jacque looks at the board and points.
“No that says ‘saw-m how it’s not wrong.’ You forgot the ‘e’ Brian. Brian you forgot the ‘e’.”
Brian goes up and puts an ‘e’ after the “somhow”, spelling “somhowe”. Steven cracks up laughing.
“What if, like. What if the questions are wrong, somehow?” Thomas asks.
“What if they’re wrong sawwwwmhow?” Steven says, louder than necessary.
“What if, what if, what if, we all like, we just get so fed up with your bad spelling and we all decide to vote you off of Brimstone, and just keep answering questions with ‘no’s in protest?”
“...and none of this asking the public questions thing, we didn’t even take it into account. For every spelling mistake you make we change the answer to one of the questions to ‘no’. Or maybe you’re just screwing with us, Brian, and this is all a ruse for profit?”
Brian writes “ruse for profit” under “Somhowe its not wrong”.
“Brian, why is the first upper cased and the second one not?”
“You uppercased the S in Sowiem-howeyey and not in ‘rouse for profit’?”
“What about those email?”
“What emails, Jacque?”
“What about those emails, why aren’t we talking about those emails? We need to talk-- I need you to address those emails.”
“I don’t know what emails you’re talking about.”
“Do you--” Steven begins, “Do you mean ‘address those emails’ like ‘address’ as in location, or ‘address’ as in confront?”
Jacque doesn’t understand this question.
“What about those emails?”
“Brian?” Barbera asks almost timid, “How pressing is this?”
“What do you mean?”
“How urgent is figuring this out? It doesn’t seem like anybody is really in a place where they can take this seriously, and as far as I can--does this have to happen today, or could we take a day off and regroup when we’ve had some time to, you know, process things.”
Brian considers this for a moment. “Yeah. Okay.” He raises his voice, “We’re taking the rest of the day off. We can go home, get some sleep, think about this question. We’ll get back to this.”
“When are we regrouping?” I ask.
“I don’t know, I’ll send an email out. Or a text blast, okay?”
We’re shuffling out, as a group. I stop dead in my tracks when we get outside. Thomas almost bumps into me.
“What’s wrong, ‘Liz?”
“I don’t have a car.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a car? How did you get here?”
“I drove. I was with my Aunt, she. It’s a long story.”
“Come. I’ll give you a ride.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“‘Liz, I insist. Where do you need to go?”
“I. Just drop me off at the bus stop?”
We ended up taking a week off before getting back to the conundrum. Partly to give time to brainstorming. Partly because Jacque kept flaking out. For scheduling reasons we all ended up back in the conference room on a Sunday morning.
“Okay team, what do we have? We know the end result, the question is ‘how do we get there?’.”
Barbera was the first to speak up.
“Not bloody likely, but we talked last time about the possibility that this is all correct, somehow.”
Brian scoffs and writes “Everything is okay” up front.
At this point this would be a difficult option to swing. France had already enacted article 50, meaning if this whole leaving business is to be undone, literally every other country currently in the EU would have to agree. Like Barbera says, not bloody likely.
“A reason for this will emerge” announces Thomas.
“This is the case if everything is okay, but a bit larger in context. If, for some reason, we wait it out and learn that for whatever reason the questions we are asking are wrong, and after applying the correct questions everything makes sense, than that will be an emerging reason.”
Brian writes “Emerging reasons” on the board, stopping part way through to mull this over a bit.
“Okay. This has the…” he starts writing, speaking with his back to us, “this has a necessary complementary possibility.”
“No discernible reason” he writes.
“This is. Science doesn’t make much sense anymore. At the end of the day, I think we, as scientists, like to pretend that we have even the slightest idea how anything works. But we don’t. We all pretend that we understand general relativity like we pretend we like art. It’s all a scam at the end of the day. We can psych ourselves into thinking we agree with the idea that time moves slower on an airplane than it does on the ground. That doesn’t really make any sense, though. The idea that the world is round doesn’t really make any sense. Maybe this whole project is just a step too far in that direction. Maybe this is essentially beyond human comprehension, and to try and understand what happened will forever be in earnest.”
The resonates, on a poetic level. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle for the whole relativity or art stuff too” I say. “I don’t want to be a bummer, like I totally agree with what you’re saying”
“You’re fine. Don’t worry. I understand.”
There’s a lull in the conversation.
“What would happen if we just disregarded the results, and sent back positives for the EU question?”
Brian’s shaking his head.
“I’m not comfortable entertaining that, Steven. You know I’m not comfortable messing with timeline continuity.”
“Yes, I’m not saying that we should, but I want to pose the question of what if?”
We’ve talked in great detail about our differing views on the conundrum of disrespecting timeline continuity. Within the group there’s three schools of thought. As far as I can tell, we’re fairly evenly split. First there’s the simplists. Simplists believe that there is only one timeline and there can only ever be one timeline. No matter how hard we try, or what we do, somehow the timeline will maintain one, consistent order of events. Jacque and I would be in that camp, although I’m increasingly leaning towards the second camp: the multiverses. Brian and Steven, specifically, are decisively in this category. The idea here is that the information we receive from the MCIER units come from some parallel universe. Whatever we send back goes not to our universe, but a parallel one. The final group are the pessimists. Pessimists believe that if we screw with the timeline continuity, we screw with the underlying mechanics of the entire universe and ruin all of everything. Barbara and Thomas are in this camp. They’re the ones that are keeping us from disrespecting the set of information we’ve been given. We all have to recognize the possibility, and as long as it’s a possibility, we have to tread very carefully.
“How much do you think people’s knowledge of the answers to questions influences their asking of questions?” Thomas asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, what if we accidentally caused France to leave the EU by telling them they weren’t? Like if I was a voter in France, I might not be as motivated to go to the polls to vote against leaving if I was confident in a predetermined outcome.”
“We talked about this. That’s the whole point of the control question”
“Yes but. Okay, let’s assume the whole thing operates under the multiverse hypothesis. There’s some universe where everything went terribly wrong, like the campus got blown up-”
“Oh that reminds me!” Brian writes “sabotage” on the board. “Sorry, go on.”
“Right. Right. Okay, so all of the answers come back negative. Not just the the question ones, but the control, right? So we go ahead and start asking the public questions, but with the caveat that the whole thing might be a fluke. Then, because, for like the EU thing, because voters can’t fall back on this confidence that the election will go they way they want, they’re motivated to go to the polls and everything turns out different. For whatever reason, in this dimension, every single question warrants the ‘no’ answer, so we get to the end of the project and sitting around we foolishly, selfishly, or completely unaware, send back a positive control, because everything in that dimension did go right. So we send back the stupid code we received in this dimension thinking everything would go peachy. We fucked ourselves royalty.”
Sometimes realizations start out as hunches. Little knotts. Not even verbalized questions, just the knowledge that something isn’t right. Something just doesn’t sit right. There’s something about what Thomas just said is a little off for me. I can feel it in my chest. I keep thinking about the idea that in some dimension, everything went terribly wrong. Terribly wrong.
What went wrong? What’s wrong? Something went wrong. Something went terribly wrong. Why would we send back a positive control?
It’s like everything comes into focus all at once. The small knot in my chest drops deep into my stomach. I can see the alternative universe. I can see them; I can picture us, all of us standing here in this room. We never should've done this. The image is so vivid that I’m losing my grounding in this universe’s conference room. It’s the same room. There a deep visceral busing that is moving though my blood I can’t breath right. Dread. Dread. Dread. Dread.
“WE HAVE TO DESTROY EVERYTHING! WE GOTTA WE- WE CAN’T WE GOTTA. DESTROY EVERYTHING! WE CAN’T. WE CAN’T. WE CAN’T. WE CAN’T. WE we we we...we”
Everything is black.
I can’t see. I can’t feel my hands don’t exist. I’m drowning. I’m not underwater, water is being forced down my face and my throat and I can’t breath. My whole head aches and is light. The water stops. The room is very bright, and my eyes and my ears slowly come into focus at the same time.
I’m on the ground. I’m looking up at the small crowd of people around me. They’re all worried.
“Elizabeth? Can you hear me?”
“Yeah.” I laugh. “You guys are”
This doesn’t do much to reassure anybody. I’m present though. Something tickles my neck and it freaks me out. It’s water. I’m wet. My hair is wet. My face is wet. Water is dripping down my neck.
Thomas is holding a wet pot.
“Did you guys pour water on me?”
“Yeah, we were really freaked out. You were unconscious.”
“Not cool. It felt like I was drowning. It was like I was forced under a waterfall. That was really scary.”
“I’m so sorry. We’re really sorry. I. I’m sorry. I know you would have come to, but the whole situation just felt so powerless that it was like, well. We needed to do something”
“How long have I been out?”
Brian looks at the clock.
“I don’t know I didn’t check the time when you… when you went out.”
I sigh and start to get up. Jacque and Barbera take my hands and help me.
“I’m really scared to ask because, whatever is going on seems really scary, but--well first, are you okay? Is there anything we can get you?”
“No that’s okay I--Give me a minute or two. I promise I want to tell you about what’s on my mind”
I concentrate on breathing and making sure I’m present to reality.
“I had a vision.”
That is not really an explanation, and everybody is doing everything within their power not to say anything and just let me talk.
“I had a--It started when Thomas was talking about some reality where everything went terribly wrong.”
My words are weak and slow and I feel really calm.
“There’s something about that. Something that resonated with me. Terribly wrong. I can’t figure out why we would have sent back a positive control. I couldn’t figure out why we would do that. Thomas’s explanation of somehow all the answers did work, didn’t, doesn’t make any sense to me. And then it hit me. It was like a vision. I could see, us. Here.”
The dread is starting to creep back into my chest.
“Imagine if--No. Imagine something went terribly wrong. Disastrously wrong. Somehow doing this stuff is so, so, so dangerous that not only did it go wrong, but it can, and should, never, ever be messed with ever again. And we know this, because we tried doing it, and it went really bad, really, like, universe ending bad. So the whole universe is ending, and we’re here, in this room. There’s hope, though. Our world is ending, but maybe if, somehow… We can send information back in time! We have the MCIER units. But there’s a problem. We only have seven checkboxes to do it. We have to warn our younger selves to not do this, because it’s dangerous and bad, but we only have seven checkboxes. What do you send? How do you send back a distress signal? How do you keep us from fucking it all up, for all of eternity? Maybe you come up with a code, right? Like SOS or something, but do you trust…”
Another realization sinks in.
“It’s like what Thomas said. We weren’t looking for this kind of message when we went into the room, so somehow we have to send back something that is immediately recognizably wrong, just wrong. If we send back all ‘no’s than we’ll notice right away, right? We’ll be standing in a room full of red lights and there’s no denying that there’s a pattern. If they’re all red than we’ll know something went wrong, right? But we’ll just think it was a failed experiment. Like Thomas also said, maybe someone blew-up the building before we could send anything back. So that stops us from doing this round of experimenting, but there’ll be more. The science is out there, and if this one failed, somebody, somewhere, is still going to try and screw with this stuff. And when they do, they’ll end up destroying the entire world, just like some alternate version of us did. No, no. We needed to have this meeting. Where we know something went really wrong. We needed to be humiliated in public for saying things that weren’t true. There’s no possible way for a box to come back checked if it wasn’t on purpose. So we checked off the control. Because you know what the control box really means? It doesn’t really mean everything went good. It doesn’t really mean that the whole experiment went right. What it really means is that the message we are sending back is intentional. It means that even though all those ‘no’s make no sense, we wrote them on purpose. It means there’s a reason, right? That’s why we’re here in this meeting. Because we know that we sent back this message that’s, wrong, on purpose, and we’re trying to figure out why. So. The message we got, it was a distress signal. It was the last message sent from a sinking ship with no hope of survival. What we got in that room all those days ago was the ‘save our ship’ of an entire universe.”
The room is silent. Dead quiet. I smile and start laughing.
“We need to destroy everything. Like I said. It’s not enough to just say this experiment failed. We need to destroy all of the research, all of the science, everything. We need to tell the whole science world that this is dangerous. And to never do this again. We created a bomb so big that it will destroy the entire universe. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. Seven yes or no boxes isn’t enough to explain. I can feel it though. I can feel it.”
After some time Brian writes “Death of the Entire Universe” under “Sabotage”.
“‘Liz is right.” Jacque says. “I mean. I do not know if she’s right about the boat thing, but she’s right about the need to kill all of the science.”
It’s really quiet again.
“Yeah.” Brian sighs.
“It’s too big of a risk.” Jacque continues, “If there’s even the slightest chance that what ‘Liz says is true, then we have to kill everything.”
Biran ordered Sandwiches to be delivered to the campus. He told everybody in the building that there was going to be a party and a really big announcement. He told us that we’re all welcome to join the party, but that if we like we can go home. Thomas and I stayed, the other three left.
We waited a year. Even though we all knew nothing would change we waited a year. It’s like putting a pet down. It had to be done, but it was very hard to kill. Brian announced the conclusion to the press, and explained everything that happened. Public opinion was in our favor, to destroy the science.
We weren’t just saying goodbye to the project, or the science, or the hope. We were saying goodbye to each other. There’s nothing like being stuck wrestling with the fate of humanity in a room with six nerds to create a bond. That was hard to let go of.
The day came when we had to send the “distress” signal back in time and shut all seven of the MCIER units down. It was quiet and somber. The funny thing is that after all that happened, nobody really know where the truth lies. There are three schools of thought as to what happens when you disrespect the timeline continuity. All of them were right and none of them were right. Maybe we got the distress signal because of a sinking universe. Maybe we got it because at the end of all of this, we’re about to send the same message back in time to ourselves.
I hold my breath as we all put our key cards up, but of course it works.
Inside the room Brian starts the countdown.
10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…