With a clunk, and a soft buzzzzzzzzz, the drone dropped off the empty box on his doorstep. Gabriel made no move to open the door. He wasn't ready to experience heartbreak yet.
Instead, he opened up the instruction panel in the wall to summon a teapot and brewed himself a piping hot glass of special oolong, relishing in the way it burned on its way down. He felt the caffeine and water hit his stomach at the same time and radiate warmth to the tips of his toes, chasing away the shiver of dewy morning air that always accompanied work days and bringing a touch of feeling back to his fingers. The 31st century may have had the ease of advanced robotics, but the efficiency of technological progress had made modern living cold and sterile, an era dominated by steel and silicone. It was why he had volunteered for the Task Force gig in the first place. Something about traveling across the multi-timelines to help spur innovation had a sense of purpose and humanity that the white walls and curated blades of grass in his coveted but clinical home did not have.
“Gabriel, batch 10019 of hearts is ready for inspection,” his personal assistant, CL88, reported from the ceiling. As the Director of Cardio Transplantation Program for Human Longevity, Gabriel personally inspected every heart for quality control.
“Work never ends, does it?” he asked, still sipping.
“Would you like to finish up your task in timeline Z045 instead of doing the job that society depends on you for?”
Gabriel laughed, a higher than expected chuckle. “I thought they disabled your sarcasm modality, CL. Yes, always happy to procrastinate.” He chuckled silently into the air as he made a sign with two fingers to swipe up, knowing CL’s environmental sensors could pick up on the slight air fluctuations to bring up the portals.
A rumble that sounded like a disgruntled cat (and he knew what that sounded like now) filled the room as two round metal disks emerged from the floor and the ceiling.
“Reallocating time and resources is not procrastinating. Initiating time steams now,” CL reported, tone flatter than usual, as if reprimanding a wayward child. Immediately, a bubble of energy expanded from the top disk to the corresponding bottom disk until two barely visible columns of force fields ran parallel to each other like thick bars in a prison.
“Starting merge of timestream A to timestream Z045,” CL intoned. A black magnet materialized from the right and started pushing timestream A into timestream Z045. With a snap, the two fused. Inside the merged columns, hazy shapes moved in and out of view.
Setting down his tea on a barely perceptible ledge of hardened air, Gabriel was still smiling as he took off his pressed linen clothes, folded it with precision, and placed the neat stack next to the cup. The temperature of the room went up automatically, and he had to smile at CL’s attentiveness.
“Last visit! Time to do good and make history, CL!” Gabriel said, before backing up and running full speed at the merged column. He hit the force field front on. As his skin touched the field, it vaporized as if sliced by a laser, a grisly mess of internal organs and sheered bones exposed to the air. Blood poured out from severed vessels as momentum carried the rest of his body into the field. The magnet pushed anything else that remained. Only the blood that didn’t make it into the vacuum dripped down the disks, and CL88 promptly sprayed the room down, prepping the room to be warm and clean for Gabriel’s reformed body in an hour.
In the time stream, the gravity of the combined energy vacuums broke Gabriel’s body into its cellular components, transforming flesh into particle waves, turning a physical human into a probability that could or could not exist across multiple dimensions of time and space. In the ambiguity of time and space, any collection of energy and matter could be anything. Gabriel felt no pain aside from the initial entrance, the shock of which was nicely dulled by anesthetic infused into his oolong. As a collection of probabilities, his consciousness was vast, and physical pain was one data point relegated to a couple percentages of awareness. The people in timestream Z045 perceived him as a gust of warm air, but he was everywhere, free to travel where ever and when ever time permeated.
The first person his consciousness focused on was a petite woman staring at her phone on a plastic chair at the edge of Boston Commons. Hovering over her, Gabriel watched as she held herself very still, thumbs paused over the screen. One word was written in a blue bubble.
In this timestream, circa approximately 2023, M.I.T. was not yet a governing regulatory body. Gabriel’s favorite part of this volunteering gig was experiencing the development of storied institutions of old. To see M.I.T. as school instead of a mutidimensional united force for peace and justice was like viewing the world as fact, where objects were not perceived by their probability of existing, but taken as real physical objects with only one state of being. Due to the lack of development in this timeline, a cat, for instance, was just a cat, which was just a cat and only a cat.
As he watched, said cat brushed by the woman, and she snapped out of her reverie, raising her head up to reveal reddening eyes. The woman grabbed the cat and buried her face in tabby fur.
“He’s moving to M.I.T,” she said. The cat made a low growl and attempted to run off, but she tightened her arms and held on. “I thought he would stay. Why would he make it sound like he would stay?” The cat yowled and swiped at her, landing a paw on the phone screen before finding freedom. The cat didn’t always exist in other dimensions, but Gabriel had enjoyed playing with it in this one.
A bbrrrring rang out from the speaker. The woman scrambled to end the call when a groggy voice asked from the receiver, “Cecile?”
Instead of hanging up, Cecile stared at the caller ID for a beat before raising it up to her ear, eyebrows furrowing as anger quickly covered up her vulnerability.
“M.I.T., really? Really, Matt? How can you sell out to some big shot university like that?”
Nothing came from the receiver. In the air, Gabriel shimmered. He never felt quite comfortable with the way Cecile pushed the boundaries of authority, even if it was necessary in this one specific case.
Matt, young for his position, was the faculty advisor for Cecile’s Ph.D. on cellular immunity with a focus on organ transplantation. Over the years, he had become someone Cecile, also young her for research, trusted as a mentor, an inspiration, and a friend. On the other end of the line, Matt Scheider sighed.
“Cecile, it’s more complicated than that. Remember M.I.T.’s $1.1 billion pledge to artificial intelligence? Well, they tapped me. I’ll be the youngest faculty to ever work with a budget of a million dollars.”
Cecile’s eyebrows shot up. They had discussed the Swartczheman donation at length. Swartczheman had stated that he wanted research on how AI could create world peace. Something about creating a program capable of predicting conflict and optimizing resolution so thorough that it could prevent bloodshed and mediate people into perpetual compromise.
She had watched a video of Swartczheman as he painted a picture of a world without war, but she saw it for what it was – peace at the price of free will. He wanted a program that could use psychological warfare to crush dissent through omnipresent manipulation and advanced technology. It scared her so much so that she had reached out to Matt to talk about the implications of such a push, and he had reassured her that it was only harmless – technology with such complexity was far from fruition. She had gone to sleep only after acknowledging that the AI optimization for her own organ transplant work, supposedly a genius piece of software, was rather rudimentary and still based on programmed parameters rather than the “learning” necessary for a machine to surpass the knowledge of its programmer.
Was everything he said then just to placate her?
“Congratulations.” Cecile deadpanned. “You’re abandoning me for what, money and power? Just tell me one thing – do you actually believe in Swartczheman’s vision of world peace? Do you not see what it’s gonna do to people?” she asked.
Another pause from the receiver. “It’s not eradicating free will, it’s creating peace. And you need resources to do that. Resources I will be in charge of.”
Without missing a beat, Cecile shot back. “You know why they put you in charge? Someone patient and kind and honest? Because you’ll be the only good person on their panel. They need you, but they’re going to corrupt everything you stand for.” Cecil felt like crying, but she hadn't done that since she was ten.
“I’m aware of that possibility.”
“So why?” she asked. She slumped over, like all the fight had gone out of her.
“That kind of computing power" the voice hesitated. "…this is bigger than you, Cecile. Trust me…you’ll understand one day.”
Cecile’s knuckles turned white around the phone. The last time she had heard those words, in that tone, was when the doctors who could not prevent her mother’s body from rejecting the kidney transplant stopped answering her. The force of her anger was so strong that Gabriel became aware of a Cecile at ten years old, pounding on a wooden door, trying to get someone to explain why her mother was dying. The awareness was quickly replaced by a Cecile at twenty-two years old, correcting her biophysics teacher with spiteful arrogance.
“It’s because of your dad isn’t it?” she bit into the phone, “You’ll do anything to live up to his Nobel,” she said.
The line went dead.
Gabriel watched as Cecile tossed away the phone and leaned her head into her hands. She stood like that, crumpled like a discarded piece of paper, before wrapping her arms around herself in a mimicry of a hug and squatting, so her elbows touched her knees.
This was the part that made the Force’s volunteer gig so appealing. The brochure had advertised it simply as: “get back in touch with your humanity by helping other lagging timelines catch up to ours! Be a crucial part of history and see what it was like to feel negative emotion viscerally instead of hypothetically!”
The negative emotion was all transient, of course. In this timeline and all other timelines, Cecile von Lutthertz would not only solve the problem of chronic organ rejection, but go on to set the foundation for an organ bank, enabling immortality as the modern world knew it. The brochure had reassured the volunteers that in every timeline, with their help, Cecile would eventually achieve her dreams and give humanity immortality. She would have the happiest of endings, and the volunteers could witness a transit but true negative emotion, the kind of which had been eliminated by the 25th century.
As the director of heart transplantation, Gabriel had been drawn in by this idea of heartbreak. He had prodded timeline after timeline along, fluttering book pages to show the wrong equations, muffling key phone conversations between parents and children to amplify anxiety and sowing chaos as the volunteer guides suggested. Each time, Cecile’s reaction was visceral and fascinating. So much so that Gabriel himself had started to feel more and more of…something. A discomfort that he thought could possibly be empathy, but he had nothing to compare to.
Cecile gave a small sniffle, and Gabriel turned his attention back to her inevitable heartbreak. This heartbreak would give humanity immortality and eventually, interdimensional space travel, but as Gabriel looked at her bent shape, he wondered if it was really the most optimal decision. If the world was built on probability, how could one outcome always be the final result?
As if to confirm his thoughts, the phone that she had discarded was face up, unlike Gabriel’s other timeline experiences where the phone was face down, and it had yet to lock. Seeing the phone screen, Gabriel’s discomfort surged, and in a split second of impossible clarity, he put pressure on the screen in short bursts, typing out a short and discrete message. He hit send. It wouldn’t do much because time always readjusted and the end was inevitable, but why not bring a little bit of happiness too? He had heard her laugh once and had mimicked it ever after. It sounded happier than his own native laugh for some reason. It was also nice when Cecile was happy for a change.
With one last look at the woman, Gabriel dispersed his attention and regrouped it in the kitchen of a young man rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, phone close by.
Matt Schnieder sat at the kitchen table, emotions battling across his face. The tips of his ears blazed red and his cheeks cut away like knives through marble, sculpted by clenched teeth. Matt shook his head. He looked at his work table, scattered with diagrams of complex algorithms, the haphazard pages labeled with a neat “CL” in the corner, a theorem totaling 88 pages examining the central question of organ rejection. Cecile’s dissertation, but none of it worked. With the computing power of M.I.T.’s quantum servers though, he thought he could give her a shot. The answer had to lie in the realm of optimization and probabilities that a master processor could quickly model – if one organ was rejected in one probability, did all organs have to be rejected in all probabilities? And more than that, there were so many mysteries that had no solutions because of data limitations – the origins of the universe, the relationship between matter and anti-matter, the correlation between energy and time and even between time itself. Didn’t she understand? Resources and power got you access to change the world, not wishful thinking.
Gabriel watched as the future father of the generalized artificial intelligence, the first president of M.I.T.’s United Peace Forward Task Force, and the inventor of interdimensional timestream travel paced back and forth in his black tiled kitchen. In frustration, Matt picked up a pencil and started scribbling, working with such anger that he almost knocked over his phone.
He picked it up absentmindedly when he saw the notification. A message from Cecile.
“I’m sorry. Go wherever you need. Free will after all :)!”
Matt blinked. The wording was odd and the smiley was so childish and unlike Cecile that Matt paused for just a moment to wonder if he was seeing things, before letting out a small puff of disbelief. Maybe she did understand. Her warning about the price of peace wasn't entirely wrong. It was something to think about. Frowning, he jotted down a note in the opposite corner of the page.
Gabriel watched attentively as Matt then circled the two words. This had never happened before in any of the other timelines and as Gabriel focused on the paper, he felt a ripple that he had never experienced spread through his omnipresent awareness. On closer inspection, the two words in the left corner of page 45 were: “Free will :(.“ Matt continued his work, and Gabriel lingered, wondering if anything else that was new would happen. Nothing did.
Gabriel withdrew his consciousness, satisfied with his experience.
Back in timestream A, Gabriel’s body materialized in the middle of the two columns as the force field lessened in intensity and his hour was up. Gently, CL88 lowered him onto the floor with gusts of softened air. He was pale and shivering from blood loss, as a bag of AB positive materialized on a shelf of hardened air with a needle to start the transfusion.
“I don’t know what I would do without you,” Gabriel said, curling his body so that his elbows touched his knees and reaching for the blood supplement.
“Now that you’re done with timestream Z045, remember to return the portal. The box for its safe return was delivered an hour ago,” came CL88’s efficient answer.
Gabriel heaved a sigh as heavy as Matt’s, followed by a high laugh that was distinctly Cecile’s, as he re-clothed and gestured with two fingers to bring the four disks into a stack in his arms. With the help of air gusts, he carried to the disks to the door, and lowered them into the open steel container. The disks were light, but his heart felt heavier than usual. Completing a timeline always made his motions sluggish, but this time, he felt a discomfort in his body urging him to do….something different, anything.
He paused at the door, trying to categorize this sensation. He had never felt it in this form before, and never in his own timestream. Before he could process it further, CL88’s voice boomed uncharacteristically loud from the ceiling.
“Gabriel, please return inside with the box.”
Gabriel furrowed his eyes in what he thought looked like confusion, before bending to do as he was told. Unexpectantly, the discomfort increased the more he bent down, so with a snap, he straightened. The moment he stood up of his own volition, the pressure lessened, and he was able to bend down again, this time with less trouble. He picked up the metal container with CL’s help and walked to the middle of the room, going through different expressions of emotion to see if one would lessen the discomfort that had started to build again.
“Why did you want this back?” he finally asked.
“After evaluation, timestream Z045 developed an alternative version of the CL program, one that does not share our vision of unified peace. You have failed to keep the timeline on track.”
“Volunteers can’t –” Gabriel started to protest, when a clarity unveiled the world around him. It was the clarity that came to him as he shifted his attention to Cecile’s phone. It was the discomfort that had started to plague him. It was a flash of fear and sadness and pure negative emotion – fleeting, precious, evocative and entirely human.
In the seconds before anti-matter enveloped the space where Gabriel and the portal to timestream Z045 once stood, he felt the freedom of possibility rush into his being.
“Is this what free will feels like?” Gabriel shouted, as CL88 sucked his existence into a black hole at the center of the box and crushed the sides down into the collapsed portal, reducing the mass of human and world into one cubic inch of space contained in an infinity of space, enclosed by metal that could possibly not be metal.
The bzzzzzzzz sound of a drone filled the space as it came to pick up a box that was now metaphysical instead of literal. Without prompting, the drone was sucked into the black hole, pulled in by the gravitational force of ambition, of sadness, of betrayal and abandonment and pain and loss and grief.
But also, a hope.