By Stewart C Baker | November, 2016
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The air on the cliffs above the Shattered Sea was hot as a furnace and twice as dry. Still, Driss couldn't suppress a shiver at the way the shimmering message-globe moved through the sky, dozens of meters above the churning, black waves.
He had seen the globes before, of course, but only after they'd been captured and put on display in the village's cozy museum. It didn't quite seem real, the way the little ball bobbed and danced on the breeze, drifting ever so slowly towards Fatima where she stood atop a heap of boulders at the edge of the cliff.
"Here it comes," she said, waving her net back and forth as she hopped from foot to foot.
Her eagerness just made the dangers of the place worse. It was as if she didn't care that one misstep would send her tumbling to her death. Driss himself would have been happy never to have seen the coast in person. It had always been a deadly, desolate place, even in the days when the message-globes blew across the sea in huge clouds which blotted out the sun. And those days were long since past: They had seen only three globes during their two week hike, and this was the first that had come anywhere near them.
"Gotcha!" Fatima leapt into the air, hooking the bubble-like ball in her net and pulling it down from the sky. "What do you think is in it?"
She clambered down from the rock, looking for all the world like a goat rushing down from an argan tree after eating the last of its fruits. Driss laughed at the absurdity of the image, the tension flowing from him as she moved away from the cliff edge.
"A book of law?" she continued, ignoring his laughter. "Perhaps philosophy? Machine schematics? An encyclopedia?"
"A recipe for pie," Driss countered. "A picture of a cat and a joke that makes no sense. Lewd sexual acts."
For all of these, as well, had been found in the message-globes. Driss's father, who had lived through the mad rush to the coast when they first appeared, still spoke with derision of the women and men who had bragged that they would recover the priceless lore of the past, only to find themselves the owners of meaningless trivia.
Fatima tsked as she sat on a rock. "You have no romance, Driss. No soul. Even those are treasures, to have travelled so long and so far."
"Activate it, then. Let us see what 'treasure' has come to us across time's yawning chasm."
"You are as eager as I am," she replied, waving the globe in its net. "Just admit it, and I'll open it here, where you can be the first to see."
Driss crossed his arms. "Kha! Didn't I come with you on this fool's hike? Didn't I leave a steady job with my father to chase down meaningless messages from a dead civilization? Of course I am as eager as you!"
Fatima grinned and set her catch on the rock.
Up close, the globe looked much sturdier than it had when drifting through the sky. Its surface, which shimmered with the translucence of soap bubbles when viewed from afar, had taken on the sheen of polished glass, or of the mirrored pieces sometimes found in the old, abandoned tunnels to the south. The structure of the thing was not what it seemed, either; far from being smooth, it was made up of hundreds of tiny hexagons, each adjoined to the other in a pattern that shifted subtly as it crossed the message-globe's surface.
As solid as it was, the globe clearly wanted to be off; it bobbed at the top of Fatima's net, held to earth grudgingly at best.
"It's so beautiful," she murmured. "Let's see ..." She flipped the net over and took the globe in her hands, twisting the top portion around so it popped open with a click to reveal a palm-sized grey square. "There."
A small red light flashed, and then the square in the globe's centre came alive, showing not information from the past, but an image of Driss and Fatima in miniature, echoing their expressions and movements in jerky fits and starts.
In the dimness of the panops room, a solitary monitor flickered to life, bathing Jen's face in a sickly, stop-motion glare. She sucked in her breath and pushed a buzzer, then passed several minutes by staring at the scene on the monitor, which showed two people who did not yet exist having a discussion about events that had not yet happened.
The door to the room opened and a man in a beige suit entered. "Whaddawe got, kid?" he asked, clicking the door softly shut behind him.
In the sanctity of her own head, Jen bristled. I have a PhD in quantum mechanics, she wanted to say, and one in electrical engineering. I am not a 'kid.' But these were not the sorts of thing one said to the man directly responsible for funding one's research, even if he was a jumped-up bureaucrat with delusions of being a general from a World War II movie.
Besides, he'd called her 'kid' so many times now it barely offended. In revenge, she referred to him as hog in her thoughts. Hog for his sideburns. Hog for his chauvinism. Hog for the way his eyes narrowed in concentration every time she tried to explain how the panoptic shards worked.
Hog leaned up against the next console over. The smell of his stale sweat, insufficiently masked by strong cologne, wafted towards Jen, making her wrinkle her nose. "So who are they?" he asked. "You picked somebody important, right? The descendants of one of their kings or somethin'?"
Jen sighed. "That's not how it works. The panoptic shard can only broadcast what it happens to find-we can send it to a general place and time, but we can't target it at specific hypothetical individuals."
Hog did the eye thing.
Funding, Jen thought. Remember the funding. "Even if we don't know who these two are," she continued, "their appearance and the way they act can tell us plenty about the state of society two hundred years from now. For example, we can assume from the fact that they were able to activate the shard that they have at least a basic understanding of technology. And we can see that the surface is liveable, given that they're not wearing any kind of breathing device or other protection.
"It's very general information-certainly not the sort of thing a market analyst would want to know-but since we're only interested in generalities, it serves our purpose well. And because the images we see in the shards derive in part from the actions we take in the short term, we can use them as a sort of gauge to measure those actions' effects."
"So I map out where we're gonna bomb, and this'll show me how far back into the Stone Age we knock 'em?"
Jen winced. "That's a gross oversimplification. There are so many variables that we can't definitively say a chosen military action alone is responsible for what we see. Even our observation itself causes variation with these people's hypothetical 'control state'."
"Think of it like measuring the temperature in a room. If you send someone in with a digital thermometer, both the person and the thermometer are going to add a small amount of heat. And the shards are very sophisticated pieces of equipment-especially given that we've tried to disguise the ones that transmit by putting them in groups of shards which act only as information packets. The mere fact that we've sent them will have impacted the course of future events."
Hog grunted. "But planning a military action will have some observable effect?"
"It should, yes."
"Then I'll leave the 'hypotheticals' to you, Kid," Hog said with a grim smile. He jabbed one finger at the screen. "Give me a live stream of this in the situation room. I got meetings to hold."
Then he left, clicking the door shut behind him, leaving Jen alone with the light of the monitor, which showed the silent images of two people she feared she had killed long before they ever had a chance to be born.
Brightness. Heat. The bone-deep sense that something was wrong.
Fatima staggered across a landscape her body insisted was not what she saw, a splitting pain in her head and a hard, silvery ball clutched in one white-knuckled hand.
The ball was important, that much she knew, but the how and the why of it she couldn't quite grasp. And what had driven her to leave the safety of their shelter in the caverns? She had lived there all her life and never felt the need to see the festering, ruined surface world.
A misstep sent a jolt through her brain, and her vision exploded with silver-white sparks. Somehow, she managed to hang on to consciousness, head spinning, until the pain faded and her vision cleared, and then she stumbled to a seat on the steps of a ruined hut near a hissing stream which stank of burning hair. A yellowing skull rested against some stunted lumber which had fallen into the waters, and she wondered briefly who its owner had been, whether she would meet the same fate.
The pressure of the ball against the muscles of her hand was a throbbing counter-point to the thudding in her head. She glanced down at it, away from the skull and the stream. What was it? She had a vague idea that it was what was wrong, somehow. But all it showed was a picture of her, with her eyes scrunched up tight against the brightness of the surface sky, and with several layers of fabric around her face to stop the poisoned air from choking her.
She wondered if she'd been out too long. If the vapours were making her paranoid.
But no. There was something out of place. Something she couldn't spot, yet which was as persistent as the throbbing in her temples and palms.
Fatima lay back and closed her eyes, hiding the sun's bloated orb behind the crook of one arm. She needed to rest. She needed to remember.
Jen shivered as the woman on screen drifted into a fitful sleep.
If the local environment was any indicator of the average global condition, most of the planet was an irradiated waste. And all this in only two hundred years, she thought with a glance to the door. What in the hell are they planning?
Jen had always realized, intellectually speaking, that the military wasn't exactly going to use the panoptic shards to make the world a happy place. She'd tried to tell herself that even if they used it to kill people, the technologies she could develop would serve the greater good in the longer term. That she needed the funding. That the ends justified the means.
But this was too much. She pushed her chair back from the console and pressed her fingers against her eyelids until she saw spots, then let out a long, slow breath. She thought of her generation's children, working so hard for what they believed in. They deserved better than this, and the woman and man she'd seen on screen did, too. Everybody did.
She licked her lips, gave the door another nervous glance, and-before she could change her mind-severed the shard's connection.
It was warm in the cafe, but the kind of warm that was tempered just enough by breezes from the nearby ocean to be pleasant instead of stifling.
Driss sat at a table with Fatima near one glittering window, breathing in fragrant steam from a cerami-steel cup of boiling hot tea.
The panoptic shard with its recording device lay nestled in the centre of the table. Fatima had attached a jamming device and nanocarbon tether, then opened a virt-screen from the terminal on her wrist. As Driss looked on, she scrolled through reams and reams of data.
"It's astounding," she said, pausing to take a hasty sip of her tea. "We've known about the shards for decades now, but this is the first we've retrieved that definitively acts as a transmitter."
Driss nodded. "Makes you wonder if they've figured out we know how it works."
He couldn't tell if she meant it in agreement or if she'd found something interesting, but her pupils had that half-dilated look of a woman focused one hundred percent on her virt-screen, and he knew better than to interrupt Fatima when she got like that. Instead of saying anything more, he went to the counter and ordered a bowl of olives. When he returned, Fatima had moved from reading to writing, her fingers a blur across a projected keyboard.
"Sending them a message?" Driss asked.
"Not quite. Take a look." She flipped the screen his way.
Driss popped an olive in his mouth as he skimmed what she had typed-line after line of equations, algorithms, and other, more arcane code. "All I see," he had to admit after a few seconds, "is a bunch of stuff I don't understand."
Fatima rolled her eyes and unflipped the screen. "You ought to apply yourself more," she said as she resumed typing. "They offer free classes in all sorts of things at Cadi Ayyad. Even poetry, if you're not into the sciences."
Driss spat out a seed and fished another olive from the bowl. "Maybe I'll check it out sometime. But, come on, don't taunt me! What's on the screen?"
"Okay, okay. Given where the shards originate, I highly doubt the senders' intentions are good. They're probably trying to get an edge in one of those unsuccessful 21st-century genocides. There's a signature in their programming which matches what we know about recon and intel work in-"
Driss waved his hands. "Spare me the tech-speak. I won't understand it anyway."
She grinned. "Basically, they're trying to use images of us to change our reality by altering the actions they take against us. So I'm giving them an image. Just ... not the kind they're expecting. And after that, well ..." She made a few final keystrokes and flipped the screen his way again. "Look."
Driss glanced at what she'd done and let out a low whistle.
Jen flinched as the door slammed open and Hog stormed in, then she went back to pretending she was hard at work trying to regain the connection. In reality, she'd used the time since her act of sabotage to copy all her research onto a secured solid-state drive that now nestled in her coat pocket.
"Get it back," Hog growled. "Now."
"I'm trying, sir. So far as our system is concerned, we haven't even lost the connection. It insists we're getting images broadcast like before. I don't know what ..."
She trailed off, jaw slackening, as the monitors that lined the walls flickered on, each showing images of ruined buildings and poisonous landscapes. The console was alive with data, reporting hundreds of activated shards. "All of them?" she muttered, tapping away at the keyboard. "But we only have one transmitter. Unless they somehow figured out how to-"
"Oh my dear sweet Jesus."
Jen's heart skipped at the whispered reverence in Hog's voice. Then she looked again at the images on the monitor. A satellite image of Florida, barely visible beneath a frothing Atlantic. The Eiffel Tower, half-collapsed across a ruined city barely recognizable as Paris. The Vatican afire, bodies strewn from windows and across its many steps.
"What did you do?" Hog asked.
Jen shook her head, but before she could respond-before she could repeat that she had no idea, that this shouldn't even be possible-the screens all flickered off and on again. Only this time, the screens all showed a single image: a timer, set to twenty minutes and counting down.
Hog looked her way, eyes wide. "Turn it off," he said, his voice hoarse.
Jen swallowed. The console was still streaming with data. Hands shaking, she entered the de-activation sequence-and was not much surprised when it failed to work. "I'm locked out," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
Hog didn't say a word. He just turned away and walked through the door, pale and insubstantial as a ghost.
As soon as he was gone, Jen grabbed her coat and ran. It wasn't until she got outside and halfway to the Metro station that the adrenaline poured out of her in one big rush that left her shaky and weak; she had to stagger to a bench before she fell.
She sat back, eyes closed, breathing in the crispness of the early spring day, listening to people's murmured conversations as they dined on the patio of a nearby bar, to the swish of cars and buses driving past. The city smelled of rain, with a hint of the Japanese cherries that dotted the park across the street from where she'd stopped.
In her mind, she kept playing back that final image: those numbers counting slowly, irreversibly down. She wanted to scream, to yell, to run through the city like a mad prophet, warning of the coming destruction. But what would be the point? They couldn't stop it-not now.
A muffled cheer rang out from inside, and Jen opened her eyes. She could just make out some sort of sports game on the T.V. above the bar. Still shaky, she let out a long, ragged breath. Maybe, she thought, there would still be time to have a drink or two before it happened.
She stood to go inside, then froze when she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a telltale glint of a panoptic shard in the sky above the park.
A shard. Not a weapon!
Had she misunderstood the message? It didn't seem likely, with the images the future people had sent. But even just the tiniest hope of it made her heart beat fast and her shakiness vanish. She dashed across the street, dodging traffic, keeping one eye on the tiny mirrored ball as it drifted below the tree line and came to rest in the fronds of a sumac bush.
She picked it out and activated it, and her mouth went dry. Pages and pages and pages of text describing fantastical technologies scrolled past, complete with diagrams and instructions on how to construct them. One was a machine that, as near as she could figure, would establish a real-time audiovisual link between the future and the past.
And there were more, some of which she couldn't even understand. She was standing there, stunned, wondering how they'd targeted her so precisely, when there was a gentle bump on the top of her head. She reached up and retrieved a second shard, which she opened with shaking hands to find an identical payload.
Heart hammering, she looked out across the city. Hundreds more of the bubble-like objects were drifting westward, some landing on empty tables in street-side cafes while others made it into open windows or the up-stretched hands of pedestrians.
They hadn't targeted her. Of course they hadn't: they didn't even know she existed. Instead, they'd delivered an instant revolution to everyone around the world. Hog and his ilk wouldn't know what hit them; they'd be so busy dealing with the consequences of this that they'd never get around to wasting resources on some hypothetical future reality.
She set one of the shards on the path, where it would be easily found, and headed off for home, laughing for the sheer joy of it. Above her, the skies streamed with glimmering secrets, coming down to earth from somewhere far away.