Journal: Time Threads: Explaining the Inexplicable

This is another chapter chock-full of information that you probably don’t want. Feel free to skip forward to the beginning of the next chapter. I understand. I do want to be here either. This is my “greased pig” chapter. If you are wondering why I am referencing an extinct animal, let me explain.

In my childhood in northern Minnesota, we were impoverished in many different ways, but especially in the area of entertainment. Sometimes around the middle of summer, probably as part of the Fourth of July celebrations, the Stapleton Clan “entertainment committee” would hold a greased pig contest. The contest consisted of three elements: one or more pigs, a fair amount of grease in the form of lard, and a bunch of youngsters who had nothing better to do than chase after and corner the pig. The person who trapped the pig got some kind of prize. If it had been a good year, the prize might be the pig itself. It had been a lean year, the prize would be something of lesser value.

To make things more “fair” (and to add to the amusement of the bystanders), the pig would be coated with lard to make it really slippery. To make it even more interesting, the youngsters would have to dip their hands into the tub of lard before the contest started. Finally there would be various age groups to make it more of a fair contest. Now what you had was a bunch of children running around after this pig. The pig, likely smarter than at least some of the pursuers, would zig and zag, squealing loud enough to wake the dead. The pursuers would try for a hold, slip off and frequently fall on their face or their ass. This provided hours of fun for the bystanders, mild amusement for at least some of the intrepid hunters, and absolute misery for the pig.

I hated this contest. I participated for 11 years from age 6 until age 16 largely because it was a “rite of passage” that pretty much every Stapleton boy had to go through. I was never very clear about what participation proved other than your willingness to put up with a lot of crap. I never did get close to winning the prize. In a way that was a good thing. If you won the prize, you had to take care of the pig, fattening it up so that it could be sold, with the proceeds going to your parents. The contest, unappealing in every aspect, was something you participated in because it was family and you were expected to be a part of that family.

Trying to write about the time threads is very much the same. You can see, hear and smell the pig but realistically you have no chance of getting your hands on the pig. Likewise, you can observe the behavior of the time thread but you have no chance of getting your mind to understand it. If the world were fair, the astonishing improbability of ever winning, should release one from the obligation to participate and fail. But “obligation trumps rationality” and so I am obligated to try to explain time threads even when success will forever be out of my reach.

Let’s backup for a minute. Using the time portals to travel through time is a form of magic. The familiarity of that magic meant that it was not that much different from the magic that we used to sail the George S. Merton across the Atlantic to drop our cargo at a particular place on the English coast. I doubt there was anybody aboard the George S. Merton that really understood, in any deep way, how we did that. We adhered to the steps of the rituals and were rewarded by ending up where we wanted to be. We did this again and again without much difficulty. If we had stopped halfway across the Atlantic to think about what we were doing, we would have to concede that we were quite insane. The ocean was incredibly vast and we were really just small specs on the surface hoping that nothing bad happened to us. My attitude was the same about the time portals. Yes, there was magic that I did not understand in any detail, but it was practical magic that worked. Nobody else was going crazy about it and therefore there was no reason for me to go crazy about it either.

The time portals were clearly an invention built from the ground up by human beings. Without human beings, there would be no time travel via the time portals. The time threads were another matter altogether. The time threads appear to be to have been present all along, waiting to be discovered. It was only when Rulon Akola went searching that, based upon an odd interpretation of the Rulatz equations, he revealed the existence of the time threads. There appear to be a fixed number of time threads more-or-less evenly distributed across the globe; there are even time threads in the oceans that are known to exist but are otherwise not used.

Rulon Akola was not a time-travel theoretician. He was a practicing engineer and his approach to time threads reflected his engineering attitude. I had watched a recording of Akola meeting with time-travel theoreticians, clearly frustrated, who kept asking “How does it work?” Rulon Akola kept replying, “If it works, then it works.” In other words he didn’t know and he didn’t care. The time threads represented practical value to him. Theoretical explanations did not represent any value at all to him. Next question, please.

The simplest way to describe a time thread is that it is an elevator through a time branch. A time thread is anchored at a particular geographical location. It has a beginning point in time and an ending point in time. For example, a time thread might come into existence at 15,000 BC and end at 3,500 A.D. If a time traveler is at that particular geographic location during this period, the time traveler can travel in time (with much less effort than using the time portals) to any point along that range of time.

How does this all work? There is a saying that “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at the same time.” In the day-to-day world in which we live, we think of time flowing with a steady “ticking” as the units of time recede into the past. On tick 3000, the world changes slightly; on tick 3001, the world created by tick 3000 turns into the world that tick 3002 will change some more. But the Rulatz equations for time threads say that within the time thread there is no ticking. All of the time in the time thread is squished together. What this means is that if you are inside of the time thread, there is no past and no future. Everything that has or ever will happen to the time thread is right there. This opens up a Pandora’s Box letting out multiple opportunities and complications.

One opportunity is instantaneous, low-effort travel through time. The time traveler enters the time thread at one point in time, shifts perception to focus on another point in time, and exits the time thread. Presto change-o, you are at this other point in time. Fast, simple, and low cost. But there is a catch.

The complication is that you are now quite insane. The Rulatz equations made clear that time was squished inside of the time thread. That meant that from the perspective inside of the time thread every transfer that would ever happen had already happened. This was fertile ground for paradoxes. The human mind is not wired to be able to perceive squished time. When that mind is injected into the time thread, there is no way to describe what happens other than to say the mind incinerates. This is a very high price to pay for what otherwise would be a very attractive form of time travel.

The key to using the time threads is the notion of “shifting perception.” That means that if one injected a rock into the time thread, it would come out at the same point in time as it went in. The rock cannot perceive anything and therefore cannot shift perception. Human beings have perception. Advanced machines have perception. One might think that machines would be immune but the machines are our creations and, at least in this instance, share our vulnerabilities.

Akola was an engineer and complications, even one as nasty as instant insanity, are challenges to be overcome. Akola tried all sorts of things to compensate for the maelstrom represented by the time thread. It was possible to shield a human being from perceiving anything during the transfer and thus remain sane, but ultimately there had to be an entity with shiftable perception to guide the encapsulated human being through the time thread. He tried hundreds of different machines but each one of them was insane on exit. He finally came to the conclusion that anything that he built would be too much like a human being to survive the transfer. He needed to come at the problem with a different set of tactics.

He built a whole system of machines that could create the guide machines, test them by running them through the time thread, identify the ones that were marginally less crazy, and use those “survivor” machines along with a few random “mutations” to construct new machines to be tested. Since these were digital machines without a physical form, thousands of machines could be tested every minute. Akola labored for over seven years and countless generations of machines as he bred a machine that could guide its cargo to the desired place point in time and survive the transfer. He had solved the problem. Or had he?

As is often the case in engineering, a solution that addresses one complication, in turn, creates other complications. The problem was that nobody, including Akola, understood how this guide machine, evolved through billions of generations, worked. It was, without question, the most complicated digital machine ever constructed. Most machines were simple enough that other specialized machines could be used to verify their correctness, but there were no machines that could even begin to verify what became known as the “Guardian” machine. Because it had evolved, it was likely that a significant amount of the code within the machine was superfluous, but no one knew what was essential and what was not. The theoreticians howled, “But we must know how it works!”

Akola, ever the practical engineer, demonstrated that it worked. He had compiled extensive lists of possible situations involving every kind of animal, every kind of plant and thousands of in-animate materials. He exhaustively tested each situation. Each time the Guardian transported a time traveler through the time thread, the desired result was achieved without problems. Again and again, the Guardian performed without flaw. Theoreticians could ponder the problem all they wanted as long as they stood off to the side out of the way. Even if nobody could explain how it worked, it did work, every time.

Well, not every time. Let’s step back for a moment. Because of the way that Akola had constructed the machines that had generated the Guardian machine, it was only possible to provide instructions to the Guardian through a very simple but abstract language. The interface did not provide any way to specify an exact date to which the time traveler should be sent. Rather, the instructions to the Guardian would specify that you wanted to move in time a specified duration forward or backward from the current time. The Shepherd planning the visit the past had to do some simple arithmetic to achieve the desired result. The “Language of the Guardian”, or GeeLang for short, would also allow you to reference prior transfers. For example the following was a perfectly valid GeeLang instruction to the Guardian: “Send this package of supplies to the point in time two days, three hours, and 22 minutes after the arrival time of the last transfer made.” The Guardian kept track of every transfer that made and could calculate the precise point in time.

What this meant was that you could make some very complicated requests of the Guardian and the Guardian would know how to carry out those requests. The problem was that it would refuse to carry out certain requests. After extensive analysis of these denied requests, it became apparent that to carry out any of these particular requests would cause a paradox. The Guardian, presumably in wise deliberation, refused to create a paradox, but how did it know? Engineers could monitor the movement of data between the Guardian and the time thread when one of these invalid requests was made, but nobody could figure out what to make of the data that was transferred. To complicate things even further, one could make the same invalid request on three successive days and get three entirely different sets of data exchanged between the Guardian and the time thread. The theoreticians railed at the injustice of an incomprehensible universe.

This inconsistent behavior lead Akola and others to speculate that the time threads behaved as if they were conscious of the intent of the time traveler. Let’s take a look at the example that they taught me in Shepherd School. Let’s say that Alice is going to travel back in time 5000 years using a time thread. Alice does some work in the past and uses the Guardian associated with the time thread to send back a message, reporting on her status. The status message notes that she had a problem with a particular operation because she made a choice that didn’t work out; she had to spend some time redoing the operation to correct the mistake. The naive among us here in the present might want to send a message to a pre-status-report Alice warning her of this potential problem before she ends up wasting all that time. We could set up the message, specify that the message should be delivered to Alice before the problem occurs, and instruct the Guardian to deliver the message for us. If the Guardian were foolish enough to deliver this message, we would have created a paradox; we sent the warning because we received her status report indicating she had a problem. But if she received our warning message, she would have avoided the problem and not sent the status report indicating that she had a problem. Accordingly we would’ve never sent the warning which, in turn, would have caused her to have the problem noted on the status report. That loud noise that you are hearing is the Paradox Proximity Alert Siren. As I’ve noted in these journals, the Arisa do not like paradoxes. And, apparently, neither do the Guardian machines.

There are some spooky aspects to this situation. It does not appear that the contents of the message make any difference. It appears that only intent matters. If we send the message in a language that no one in the past can read, the message will go through. If we arrange to use a code to communicate a warning, the message will not go through. If we sent the warning message to a point in time just after Alice sent her status report, the Guardian would send it along without a problem. It is hard to avoid an interpretation of this behavior that does not lead to thinking that the Guardian and the time thread are alive and actively monitoring everything that we do.

It is even more complicated than this. There are recorded instances where Alice’s first message about status would be refused by the Guardian. In these instances, no one has discovered how that first message could be regarded as causing a paradox. And yet, the messages are refused. There is an ongoing controversy among time-travel theoreticians about whether it is the time thread that is refusing to transport the message or it is the arcane and convoluted nature of the Guardian that is refusing. The engineers only care about the fact that there was a refusal.

The time threads and the associated Guardian machines have been in use for centuries. While there is a continuing line of theoretical research about the time threads, there is no one who can claim with any justification that he or she understands how the combination of the Guardian machine and time thread actually work. Over the centuries, a set of rituals have evolved, incorporated into the protocols of time travel, that specify “right behavior” with respect to how the time threads are to be used. As a Shepherd, I have followed these protocols very carefully and have never had a problem with the time threads. I see absolutely no reason to change my behavior.

That has not stopped several dozen time-travel theorists from devoting lengthily parts of their careers to creating complex and elaborate theories to explain this phenomenon without invoking the paradoxes or the notion that the time threads have consciousness. None of these elaborate theories are as successful as the ones that simply assume that the time threads are in some sense alive and are making conscious decisions to protect time travelers from creating paradoxes. These latter theories have a significant “subjective” component that flies in the face of Arisan rationality.

Let’s throw in another complication. Human beings and sentient machines (other than the Guardian machine) cannot talk to the time thread directly. That way lies madness. The only way to “talk” to the time thread is through the Guardian. If you are up at the head end of the time thread with all of the infrastructure maintained by the Arisa, that is not a problem; there are machines to handle this communication. If you are 10,000 years in the past and you want to book passage on the time thread, you need to have some kind of material presence to support the Guardian. We now introduce the third leg of the time thread triad: the time stations. Each time thread that we want to use for time travel has its own corresponding Guardian machine and a corresponding time station that is established at a location close to where the time thread exists. The biggest challenge is to locate a geographically stable place where no one will be building strip malls or sports arenas that will attract crowds that interfere with the covert nature of the time stations.

Each time station has three purposes. The first is to serve more or less as a glorified waiting room for arrivals and departures using the time thread via the Guardian. The time traveler 10,000 years in the past wishing to return to base time finds the time station, gains access to it, formulates a request to the Guardian machine, enters the time thread portal, and pops out in base time; going back to the past has a similar pattern. The second purpose is to serve as a repair and re-supply depot during a visit into the past. The time station has machines that can fabricate small items as needed to restock a team visiting the past. The third purpose is to serve as a monitoring base to watch for and report any time travel activity. Each time station has an area to monitor using small machines that fly about unobtrusively. As soon as it detects time travel activity, it sends a warning message up to the future.

Each time station contains a relatively simple machine to coordinate the activities of all the other machines in the time station. The typical approach is to call this machine the “time station” and to address it while residing in the station as “Station”.

Our next complication is the fact that “thinking machines” tend to “go off the rails” when left alone for millennia at a time. The smarter the machine, the more likely and the quicker the derailment. Akola tried all sorts of arrangements to fix this problem. The only answer was to make the time station machine “not so smart.” If the “time station” were human, we would say that it was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I would say stupid, but the Arisa would regard that as impolite.

To be fair, the time station only had to be smart enough to handle the minimal activities of an empty station. Any time traveler that needed more smarts brought their own “super smart” machines that would never go insane. This arrangement worked quite well until it did not.

You could travel in time along the length of the time thread. You were restricted geographically to the location of the station that enclosed the time thread. You could not travel before the time thread existed or to a point after the time thread had been terminated. The terminology of time threads was that the time thread started in the future at what was called the “head end” and terminated in the past at what was called the “base end” of the thread. You could enter the time thread at any point along its existence and exit at any point along its existence. In effect both ends of the movement in time were anchored. Time travel using a time thread was substantially more efficient than using the time portal but at the price of being much less flexible.

Ready for another complication? Consider the situation of Alice back in the past some 10,000 years in the past. She is waiting for a transfer from the base time “now”. Perhaps it is a shipment of a much needed piece of equipment; perhaps it is a message. All that matters is that she is waiting. So is the Guardian. But why is the Guardian waiting? We said that the time thread already contains every message that will ever be sent. In theory, the Guardian could retrieve the message at any time. Of course, if it retrieved the message too early, there would be paradoxes and madness all around. Since the Guardians do not go mad and paradoxes do not occur, the Guardian must have some way to resolve the problem. The best guess is that each transfer is wrapped in an “envelope” that has a “do not open until” label. By respecting this admonition, the Guardian protects itself (at the cost of making even more people think that time threads are thinking entities).

It is unlikely that a visit to the past would only use the time threads. The most likely trip that involves the use of a time thread would go like this: 1) use the time portal to get to the most future point of the time thread that is geographically closest to the target geography; 2) use the time thread to go deep into the past; 3) once in the past, travel overland to the target geography. When done, reverse the steps to get back home. There are smart machines that figure out what combination or time portal and thread that makes the most sense for each visit.

A couple of additional points are in order here. The travelers who use a time thread to travel in time enter a physical container that is called a portal. It is not the same portal as the time travel portal. It is rarely confused with the portal of the time travel portal variety, but first-time travelers might want to keep this distinction in mind. If you are not sure, ask. You will probably be laughed at, but how else are you going to learn? The second point is that the end of the thread closest to the base time is the head of the time thread. The point that is at the end opposite the head is the base end. This is not to be confused with base time. There was an effort to change base end to “tail end” but it just never took hold.

So now you know about as much as there is to know about time threads. It is not much and what there is should be consumed to the sound of ominous background music. Shepherds and other people who actually use the time threads are pretty matter-of-fact about the time threads: “If it works, then it works.” The folks that map the time branches and define the constraints of a given visit to the past are wary of time threads, not so much because they are “spooky” but more because the use of the time thread introduces additional factors to keep track of: there is quite enough complexity in a non-time-thread visit without adding more. The theoreticians that almost never travel in time are the most troubled by time threads: their role is to understand and explain but the time threads seem ready to contest every inch of territory without giving up any of their secrets. I am content to let the theoreticians ponder the impossibilities of time threads as long as they are polite enough to stay out of the way while the rest of us get on with the work.

Previous Journal Entry: Shaking the Four Pillars of the Arisa Next Journal Entry: The Teleological Aspects of Time Travel

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