Saturday, April 6, 2024

Fluence: Cass (Part VI)

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The four of them reached out for each other, and took hands. They were totally in sync, and were able to make the jump without saying a word. They were back on Earth, but roughly 542 million years ago, standing on the beach of an ocean. They lingered for a moment or two before letting go, and awkwardly turning away from each other. Weaver walked over to a rock a few meters away, and stuck her arm into a deep hole. They heard a click, which served to split the ground apart, and reveal a stairway leading down into the earth. Lights began to switch on automatically, revealing that the bottom was only a few stories down. “It’s okay,” she said. “We’ll be safe down there. I built my own mini version of the Constant to be alone.”
“You’re not alone,” Goswin contended.
“We’ll see.” She stepped down, and never looked back to see if they were following, but they were anyway.
They landed in a decent-sized foyer with a mostly homey feel, but also laboratory-like qualities. Weaver continued to lead them down a hallway until they came upon the main room where they found an aquarium that took up one entire wall. The glass barrier curved inward, which would let creatures swim right up to investigate the humans, if such creatures were anywhere to be found. There was a lot of underwater life to admire, such as algae and a seaweed of some kind, but no fish.
After Weaver tapped something on a control panel that the others assumed was a security passcode, she watched them watch the prehistoric creatures floating around soothingly. “Those aren’t plants, if that’s what you’re assuming. They’re not animals either. They’re unlike anything you’re used to in the modern age.”
“Protista?” Eight Point Seven guessed. She was more knowledgeable than the other two, but still didn’t recognize these organisms.
Weaver shook her head. “Some people think that there are eight kingdoms, including Protista and Chromista, but there have actually been eleven throughout history and prehistory. Two of them went totally extinct long, long ago. These right here belong to Ankorea, which came this close to surviving to our day. They exhibited traits from all of the other modern kingdoms. Their frond right there shows the first inkling of photosynthesis that we’ll later see in plants. It doesn’t convert sunlight directly into energy, but it does power the decomposition process that the organism uses to break food down like fungi. It’s what makes them brown, instead of green. Despite being multicellular, they reproduce via splitting, like bacteria, which sounds insane, though I’ve never witnessed it up close. This area is really calm and hospitable, but they’re extremophiles, like Archea, able to survive in both high and low temperatures. They can nearly all transition from one to the other if need be, making them unique. But unique isn’t the right word, because they’re quite diverse, like protists.
“All of these that you see belong to Ankorea, despite how different they look, and that explains why I built my constant here. You see, their defining characteristic is that they all have this anchor that can anchor them to the seafloor. This allows them to catch food as it floats by from one spot while saving energy. Once they feel that the area has been stripped, they pull the anchor up, and move on. They can swim or drift, depending on their energy reserves. Some of their anchors extend, like the majority of the ones you’re seeing, but that one there isn’t a rock. It has a nonextendable anchor. When it’s released, this thing will kind of start to roll around until it finds a better source of food. I don’t see it here, but one of them actually has two anchors, so it can walk like an animal. It’s crazy to watch, I wish you were here for that.”
“They sound so resilient,” Goswin pointed out, “how did they go extinct?”
“No one knows. I’ve brought a few experts back to study them, but we don’t understand it yet. Of course this is all before whatever ended them, but the current theory is that they were outcompeted by stronger organisms. They might have overgrazed their own environment. As you can see, there’s not a whole lot here. That’s pretty indicative of the world right now. The food cycle is difficult to maintain in the Ediacaran period. The ones that survive are the kind that thrive with less.”
“You brought other people here?” Eight Point Seven asked. “Did that not risk paradoxes? If they had published papers regarding what you know to be facts, but which were lost to the fossil records for the majority of the population, I would have it in the repository of knowledge.”
“I erased their memories,” Weaver explained. “They weren’t happy about it, but I promised to credit them for any work published after a point in the timeline when I felt like this information could be shared. Honestly, I’ve not even decided whether that moment will ever take place. There’s no decent way to explain how anyone could possibly know this much about organisms that never fossilized. Unless time travel becomes public knowledge, this is just for me. And for you now, I suppose.”
“Are we going to keep talking about something dumb and meaningless, and sidestepping the real issue, which is why we’ve come here?” Briar questioned.
“He’s right. We have to address the elephant in the room.” Goswin looked around the room, and took a half step back as if he were searching for a literal elephant. “It’s no coincidence that we all agreed to jump to this place without exchanging a single word. We all wanted to leave where we were so we could unpack recent events and revelations.”
“The question I have,” Briar began, “is which of us are real?”
“We’re all real,” Weaver reasoned. “There’s just a slight possibility that we’re shifting timelines without realizing it.”
“Not only a possibility,” Eight Point Seven argued. “I don’t belong with the three of you.” She frowned. “This isn’t even my body.” The cut on her forehead had since healed into a scar, which perhaps alternate or shifted versions of her would be able to use to tell each other apart, but it meant nothing to the other three members of the crew.
“We don’t know that it quite works like that,” Weaver tried to clarify. “Time is a weird thing, and it’s getting weirder. The laws of causality are breaking down, and we are at the center of it. Remember what I told you about the river of consciousness. That’s not just a metaphor that applies to us because of our bizarre situation. All conscious beings experience this on the quantum level. Your mind is in a constant state of flux. Eight Point Seven, you’re considered a true artificial intelligence because when you were first created, you passed a series of rigorous tests meant to determine this very thing. Classical computers do not flow like human minds. Their alterations are quantifiable, and even reversible. They can be codified as a series of rapidly changing states. No matter how rapid the change is, each state can be pinpointed and recorded. Humans do not exist in states, and neither do you. Not simply knowing, but understanding, this phenomenon was key to advancements that led to things like mind uploading, digitization of the brian, and total immersive virtual reality.”
“I’m having trouble following,” Briar said nervously.
Weaver faced him. “Time travelers tend to think of reality in terms of clearly definable timelines, which you can destroy when you create a new one by triggering a time travel event. We call this a point of divergence. But that’s not really how it works. Time is constantly shifting through an array of equally probable potentials of superposition—”
“You’re getting technical again,” Goswin interrupted to warn her.
Weaver sighed, frustrated at having to figure out how to dumb this down. “There is no real you, or fake you. They’re all you, and you are all them. Even without this thing that happened to us, you may be jumping to different realities all the time, which exist simultaneously in parallel. That’s what we’re all worried about, right? We’re afraid that we don’t belong together, because we can’t know whether someone’s been replaced. Think of it this way, it may be true that you’re always being replaced, no matter what you do. You step into a new reality, don’t realize it, and move on like nothing happened. That could simply be how it works for everyone. It may be an inexorable characteristic of existence. There’s still a lot about the cosmos that even I don’t know. So the question is, if that has been happening to you your entire life, why worry about it now?”
“Because some of us appear to be shifting back,” Goswin noted.
“Yes,” Weaver conceded. “We’re encountering ourselves, not as fixtures at different points in the timeline, nor even as alternates from conflicting timelines. They’re just us, copied to possibly infinite numbers, looping back on ourselves, and criss-crossing each other’s paths. It’s chaos. It’s chaos incarnate. That’s scary, I get it. We can try to fix the issue, or  we can try to ignore it.”
“Wait.” Goswin stepped farther away, and peered around the corner of another hallway. “If we thought to come to this place, how come no one else did? Our other selves, that is. Or...whatever we should call them.”
“Shifted selves,” Eight Point Seven suggested.
“They should not be able to enter the premises,” Weaver assured him. “I placed us in a temporal bubble. We’re currently moving through time at a speed that is only nanoseconds slower than outside, which is more incidental than anything. The purpose is to erect a barrier that cannot be breached, even by another me. It’s a safeguard I put in place, not to stop my...shifted selves from coming in, but any alternate. If another Weaver shows up, she’ll see the bubble, and know to jump to a different moment—perhaps a year from now—to avoid running into herself. When you travel this far back in time, precision is implausible at best. I have labs all over the timeline, but this is more of a vacation home to get away from people.”
“Maybe this already happened, and they went back, instead of forward,” Goswin proposed. He had wandered over to the kitchen table where he found a piece of paper. He lifted it up, and turned towards the group to read it out loud. “Shifted Selves Visitor Log. Weaver, Goswin, Eight Point Seven, Briar, Six Point Seven, Ellie Underhill, Holly Blue...” He stopped at the last name on the list. “Uhh...”
“Are there tally marks next to each one?”
“Uh, yeah,” Goswin confirmed. “The usual suspects are about even. Holly Blue is here three times, as is Six Point Seven, and Ellie came once. I guess she decided to join us on the X González in one timeline.”
“At least one,” Briar added.
“Right,” Goswin agreed.
“What is it, Gos?” Weaver asked him. “You’re balking at something, and it isn’t the tally marks. Those are interesting additions to the crew, but not wholly shocking. Who’s on the list that shouldn’t be?”
Goswin looked up from the paper. “Misha Collins.”
The Misha Collins?” Eight Point Seven asked.
“Who’s Misha Collins?” Briar asked, having lived his whole life literally under a rock, or cave, rather.
“Misha Collins is an actor from the 20th and 21st centuries,” Weaver explained. “I would like to hear the story that led him to show up here.”
A shadow appeared out of nowhere next to the refrigerator. It was sliced up in segments, which were shimmering, and moving from side to side like Pong, as molecules worked to coalesce into full form. It started with the shoes on the floor, and began to work its way up as the traveler struggled to find his place in this point in spacetime. Pants, trenchcoat, narrow tie over a white shirt, and finally the neck and head. It was none other than Misha Collins. He only took a few seconds to get his bearings. “What is it this time? Uh, I”

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