Aphelion Issue 253, Volume 24
August 2020
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Time Warrior

by Adam Carlton

I must say I really like military anthropology lectures. Admiral Smugg tells a good story and there's not much math. The location's not so good though. The Naval Academy likes its traditions, but lecture halls with tiered wooden benches? I’m numb after half an hour!

I slid into the back row next to the door, ideally placed for a fast getaway. I noticed my old nemesis, cadet Wagg, had taken a front row bench again. Long experience had persuaded 'Scally’, as we like to call him, that that was the best place for his brand of trouble-making.

Admiral Smugg emerged from a side door and approached the lectern. I saw his weaselly assistant, theory-colonel Latimer, unobtrusively seat himself to the admiral's left. The admiral was a portly man in late middle age, of florid complexion and determinedly cheerful disposition. He revelled in tedious service anecdotes. Consequently his lectures were easy to derail. Scally was preparing himself for an hour's fun.

"Good morning, cadets. Today's lecture concerns our tactics in securing Minsky-4 for the Empire. We had to deal with the aboriginals we called time hunters. Today of course," -- a sly smile -- "we have to call them Minskians, but back in the day we had some very different names!"

His audience was losing interest already. Some cadets were quietly joking with each other, others checking their phones. Smugg hastily speeded up.

"We arrived in orbit and at first all seemed well. We observed the hell out of that planet and soon determined that the Minskies were top dog down there, though they had no tech better than their leafy huts.

"Following protocol, we dropped an ambassador together with a couple of our roughest, toughest space marines to watch her back. They were inserted a klick from a convenient village. The plan was that they would just walk right in and say hello.

"And that was the darnedest thing. First off, the natives were just where surveillance said they would be, then, without warning, our contact team was ambushed from both sides - out of nowhere! The gooks, ... er sorry, Minskies, might have been low-tech, but they sure had mean teeth and claws. And numbers.

"To cut a long story short, after the loss of several contact teams, we pulled in our horns. How were they getting the drop on us every single time?"

I had heard something about this sorry episode but the details had been hushed up and were classified. It seemed like we were going to get the real dirt. The cadets began to listen with more care.

Smugg was getting into it now.

"It seemed incredible but in the end there was no real doubt. Each Minsky had the ability to move forwards and backwards in time. As a group they collaborated to explore all the paths of their possible futures. Then they’d zoom back to the present, get into a huddle and figure out the plan with the best chance of success.

"And that’s why we were always being wrong-footed!"

Scally now raised his hand, ready to put one over on the admiral.

"Sir, with respect, there’s no way they could be doing that. According to Relativity the future is already determined by the present. They couldn’t be exploring alternatives, because alternatives don’t exist."

Smugg looked momentarily confused but was rescued by a languid interruption from his assistant, the theory-colonel.

"Yes, Cadet. If the universe was run according to Einstein you'd be right. But as you ought to know, Einstein was wrong. When we’d dissected a few of the, er, natives we discovered a quantum nanosystem in their brain cells. Seems like they were unconscious Everettians."

Latimer smiled superciliously, sure his reference had gone well over Cadet Wagg’s head. And indeed, Scally now hunkered down, looking rather small. That might have been a bad move on Latimer’s part. Scally had lost all interest in the details of the lecture. All his thoughts now were diverted to revenge.

"Well, when we had that figured out," Smugg resumed, "we knew exactly what to do. We had that world laid bare to our tactical sensors. Not a leaf fell and we didn't know about it. We built a hyper-realistic simulation and ran it forward, branching on all tactical options: both for them and us. It was our version of time-travel, but running on our computing core."

I knew just how powerful the computing platforms were in our main battleships. Those native hicks: they probably never knew what was gonna hit 'em.

Admiral Smugg now took a step back and beckoned Latimer to the lectern, a sign it was going to get a bit technical.

"Some of the more intelligent of you may have heard of minimax. You get to beat the best tactics of your opponent if you’ve got a potential winning strategy. The Minskies were doing unconscious minimax in the multiverse; we were doing it consciously in simulation. Minimax is time-travel.

"Guess what? We were better!"

I thought I should show willing at this point, get a few points in with the brass. Wide-eyed I asked,

"What happened then, sir?"

There, that should do it.

"Funny thing," answered the admiral, "We'd plan an op based on deep search in the computing-core and we knew they’d have no way out. No matter they pulled out all the stops, we’d get them eventually. If they made any errors - limited lookahead and stuff like that - hell, we’d just get them even sooner.

"And they could see that, and then they just froze. Sat passively in place as we walked in and rolled them up. Never had an easier incorporation into the Empire!"

Smugg now turned to his right and tugged at a curtain I’d barely noticed. Drawing it back, he unveiled a cage like something you’d keep an outsized peacock in. There, squatting in the sand at its centre was a creature like a hairless blue marmoset, although its head was skeletal with sharp teeth. I couldn’t help noticing that its hands and feet terminated in some wicked-looking claws.

"Behold my guest here today, cadets, the Minsky Ambassador to Earth. The Minskian. In his Embassy here for security reasons."

The cadets stared in unison.

"Notice the emergency button to open the door. It's been carefully positioned at the end of this long rod, where the creature - the Ambassador! - can’t inadvertently press it."

We all looked at the protruding rod and the bright yellow button placed at the end of it.

"And notice that light on top of the Ambassador's ... enclosure?"

It was glowing a dim and steady green.

"It monitors the time-searching activity of the occupant. Green means it’s quiescent. The Minsky knows it won’t be getting out of there in any of its futures. I’m told that it’s probably furious but passive, which is pretty much the condition of its entire race, hah hah!"

Smugg evidently found this pretty amusing, and at least some of the cadets joined in with nervous laughter.

The admiral now began his summing up of the lessons we should be learning from this glorious episode in Imperial history, but I was still fascinated by the homicidal little creature. And why was the light on top of its cage beginning to flicker red?

My gaze now turned to Scally, who had not forgotten his earlier put-down. He was fortuitously close to the 'Embassy' from his position at the front. From somewhere he had acquired a pole. Perhaps it was his irritating selfie-stick. In any event he was surreptitiously extending the stick in the direction of the yellow button, the button which would open the cage.

The flickering cage-light began to shift in frequency to a constant red, though no-one else seemed to have noticed. I suddenly had a mental picture of the tree of all possible futures. This creature, even as I sat there, was visibly stirring, preparing, mapping all of its possible choices, seeing new options for the next few minutes.

I didn't shout a warning; instead I slid off the end of my bench and slipped out the door, heading at a run for the nearest exit. I had finally grasped the full implications of a steady red light.

They later said you could hear the screams all the way across campus!


2019 Adam Carlton

Bio: Adam Carlton has a background in maths, physics and artificial intelligence. He is based in Paris, France. His participation in a semi-clandestine revolutionary organisation precludes further information although he has this to say. "I'm a heterodox Marxist. I think, conceptualise and write in the demimonde of a vanishing revolutionary Paris."

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