The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible

A short story.

The city was content in the deepening twilight, as the Sun set with the air of a job well done. Wrought iron street lamps flickered to life and small birds twittered in the bushes on the gentle hillside sloping down towards the water. From the patio of the Em Cafe, two thin and earnest young men looked out across the bay, nursing their cold brews with an air of reluctant contentment.

“Would it be bourgie to say ‘this is perfect’?” asked the ginger-infused cold brew.

Classic cold brew pondered the question gravely for a moment, and opened his mouth to respond, only to shut it again as a homeless black woman shuffled into view, pushing a shopping cart, and muttering something under her breath in a disturbed undertone.

Ginger cold-brew shuffled uncomfortably, “Well, you know what I mean. The bay view, the weather, the coffee. Not, you know, life.”

Classic cold brew waited diplomatically for a moment for the homeless woman to pass, scanning for a conversation recovery cue. The patio was mostly empty. His gaze drifted past a couple of forgettable MacBook pros, paused briefly at a group of young Chinese girls taking pictures of each other holding up their hand-crafted drinks, wandered past the forty-something Indian man who appeared to have fallen asleep sprawled across a wicker armchair at the far end of the patio, and finally settled on an older man who had just emerged through the patio doors from the interior of the cafe, holding a glass of some sort of green superfood drink.

The newcomer was dressed in subtly expensive-looking board shorts and a polo shirt. He had bleached blonde hair, a deep tan, and and air of expectant annoyance. He was clearly looking for someone and not used to waiting.

“I bet that bro’s name is Ryan,” classic cold brew muttered to his companion in a disturbed undertone, “And I bet he made millions with some utterly godawful minimalist app.”

Ginger cold brew grimaced, and then relaxed.

“I guess ‘perfect’ lasts for about eight seconds around here,” he said.

Classic cold brew nodded sagely and said, “The world is always-already both completely perfect and completely imperfect.”

Ginger cold brew nodded sagely in turn, and said, “boundaries create moments and spaces though.”

He gestured at the low seating wall of grey stone circumscribing the patio, “so maybe it’s only bourgie if you become oblivious to things outside those moments and spaces. Perfection as a stance rather than a condition.”

He leaned back, rather pleased with his line. It might even mean something, he thought.

Classic cold brew looked slightly annoyed. He frowned slightly and said, “But you have to inhabit those moments and spaces gently, when they do appear, and let them go without regret when they retreat.”

He paused briefly to savor the word inhabit, making a mental note to use it more often, and then finished the thought, “This coffee, this moment, this sunset. Fin. If you don’t let go, you’ll keep writing letters to your younger self, trying to narrativize your life into perfection.”

The two settled back into companionable silence, this time in perfect contentment.

They play no further role in this story, and go on to live thoughtful, tasteful, and compassionate lives in every world line passing through Cafe Em at that moment in time and space, and are of absolutely no consequence in any of them.

This story is about the tanned older man who had just emerged onto the patio. By a curious coincidence, his name was, in fact, Ryan. And he had in fact made millions with a godawful minimalist app. By another curious coincidence, he was there to send a letter to his younger self.

***

The man named Ryan spotted the Indian man, whose wicker armchair was by a low table set apart from the main cluster of tables. The Indian man opened his eyes and looked up as Ryan made his way to him, and gestured towards the empty armchair next to him.

“We met on the physics channel this morning I think? I’m RR17 on that forum. My name is Ryan.”

“Well, don’t let that get you down, at least your last name is not Lochte or Seacrest. Or I hope it’s not,” the other responded kindly. “I am Omyo.”

“I know that’s your handle. But that’s not your name, is it?”

“It will have to do. You’re sure you want to do this?”

Ryan looked doubtfully at Omyo and said, “I still don’t buy what you said in our chat. How do I know you aren’t full of shit?”

“Would you be here if you thought I was?”

“Only reason I am here is you mentioned the Leebiz-something-something and my buddy said that was a real thing. Figured I had nothing to lose.”

“Leibniz-Cauchy lifeline stability inequality. Yes, it’s a real thing. You can look it up.”

Omyo looked silently at Ryan for a moment, then reached into his backpack under the table, pulled out a small grey box, which he set on the table. It had a row of indicator LEDs across the top, a small display, and a small, swiveling directional sensor array of some sort. Omyo connected the box to his phone with a short cable, opened an app, toggled a switch on the side of the box, and adjusted the sensor array so it pointed towards Ryan.

The box beeped once cheerfully. The indicator flashed green a few times, and then settled into a steady, sober yellow, wobbling with about three quarters of the bars lit. The display showed the number 63.

“Meet LEAP, the Leibniz Electrodynamic Approximation Perturbator. Or as I like to call it, the Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible. Quite clever, don’t you think?”

“It’s just a box with some doodads, plugged into your phone. I don’t see what’s clever about it.”

“I mean the backronym. I am rather proud of it. Well, never mind that. If you have the bitcoin wallet set up on your phone like we discussed, we can do this right now.”

“So this is the thing that will send a letter to my younger self?”

“Not a letter… one tweet. Delivered on a date between May 7, 2011 and Feb 3, 2014. You dictate it to me, I type it into this app here, and voila. Your younger self will receive a tweet from a Twitter bot at the nearest date to what you want within the window that I can target.”

Ryan looked disbelievingly at the box.

“What if my younger self doesn’t see the tweet? Or ignores it?”

“Crafting the tweet so your younger self pays attention is your problem. But if he doesn’t, then you’ll still be here and you don’t pay. Simple.”

“How does that work?”

“I give you my wallet address and you set the wallet on your phone so it’s ready to send the bitcoin with one click. Then you leave your phone on the table and step behind that potted plant by the patio door. I transmit the perturbation. If your younger self sees the tweet and changes his life, you go poof. I hit send on your phone and receive the money.”

“And if nothing happens?”

“You take back your phone, cancel the transaction, and we go our separate ways.”

“Why do I have to step away from my phone? How do I know you won’t just hit send on the transaction, jump off the patio, and run?”

“Do I look like I can run faster than you? You need to step away from the phone because the LEAP creates a knot stabilization field around this table and you have to be far enough away so it doesn’t anchor you within. The phone and I will be temporarily protected from any world line changes younger you creates. Once I turn it off after completing the transaction, all bets are off.”

“Okay, what the hell does that mean?”

“It means whatever your younger self might do to fuck things up, with high probability, the world line will continue to pass through the patio of the Em Cafe in approximately its current state for the next five minutes or so.”

“Okay, that’s just dumb. Shouldn’t even the smallest thing I do differently alter the world completely and you’ll…” he paused briefly to wrestle with the tenses, “…you’ll never will have been in this transaction with me or something.”

Omyo shook his head with an indulgent smile. “Possible, but improbable. That’s what the Leibniz-Cauchy lifeline stability inequality is about. Small perturbations to individual lifelines have small local effects, and the knot field allows you to patch things over. It’s messy, but it works well enough.”

“What about my phone? What happens to that after you turn your LEAP thing off? Won’t that be a loose end? And what about you? You’ll have memories from two lifelines? Or will one memory vanish?”

“The phone will be an indeterminate state once the field is off, since it is strongly entangled with your current lifeline. It may persist, it may decohere slowly, it may turn into a temporally dead object.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know. I just make up these phrases. Temporally dead just sounds like a meaningful thing for an orphan object impotently present in multiple world lines to be. Like a hipster. I don’t know. And my memories, they persist, but you let me worry about that,” said Omyo reassuringly.

“But…”

“Look, the probability of the world line being altered far beyond your life line is actually very low. We will in fact temporarily stabilize all the world lines near the one we’re on with a knot. Creating that knot is one of the things the LEAP does. It creates a world state bottleneck in a small space-time tube around this table.”

“A knot in what?”

“Think of it as making a knot in a bundle of ropes, and holding that knot in one hand while throwing a rock at a bird sitting on one of the ropes ten feet behind you. The bird hops to a different rope, and all the ropes jiggle a bit, but they all still pass through the knot in your hand if you’ve tied it right. Or my hand rather. And this box knows how to tie the knot right.”

“And the bird is the tweet?”

“Sure, why not?” said Omyo approvingly, “the bird is blue and it’s the tweet, we’ll run with that.”

“Isn’t it more like a cursor indicating the active lifeline or something? You’re totally making this shit up, aren’t you? Does the math also say that the tweet will put my younger self on a better lifeline? Shouldn’t entropy or something make it worse?”

“Very nice, looks like your buddy prepped you well.”

“My wife actually. Emma. I don’t know why I said buddy before. She’s a physicist.”

“Of course she’s called Emma. And you’re called Ryan.”

“Gee, thanks for the editorializing. Can we get back to the question?”

“Life editorializing is what I do, and I was about to answer the question. The second law does not apply for quantized transverse perturbations across a Leibniz-Cauchy lifeline bundle section.”

He paused for a second, and looked up, frowning slightly.

“Well, at least I think it doesn’t. I’m fairly sure it doesn’t, at least not in this particular cafe around dusk every evening. Or at least, it doesn’t seem to have applied so far. At any rate, I can’t measure it, so it probably doesn’t matter either way.”

“I have no idea what you just said.”

“Neither do I really. All that matters is, so long as your tweet is not completely dumb, more likely than not, your lifeline should shift slightly towards the locally optimal lifeline. Without screwing up the world line too much.”

“There’s actually such a thing as an optimal life? I thought that was just something the lifehacker dudes liked to say.”

“Yes. It follows from the inequality. Successive small perturbations drive the lifeline towards its absolute Leibniz limit via a sequence of Cauchy convergent trajectory variations. That number on the display shows the width of the Poincare section of your adjacent possible lifeline bundle. If it ever hits zero, there’s no more room for improvement. But whether or not it can actually hit the limit within a finite number of perturbations…that I couldn’t tell you.”

“Blah blah blah, smaller number on display is better. It’s showing 63 now. 63 what? Inches? Eggs? Percent?”

Omyo looked at the display thoughtfully, “I really should look into that. Li never did explain that to me. Li’s the guy who built the LEAP. Very smart guy, but terrible about units. It’s probably a quantum probability or something.”

“But smaller is better, and if it hits zero, is that like, where all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds?”

“Very good, very good, that’s entirely possible! Or at least, I don’t know that it’s impossible.” Omyo looked delighted. “Your wife tell you that too?”

“No I read about it on a lifehacker blog somewhere.”

Omyo nodded vigorously, “Leibniz was approximately correct. Almost all is almost always for the best, in what is almost certainly almost the best of almost all possible worlds, at least locally in space-time. The approximate version of Leibniz’ statement is called the probably approximately whiggish universe hypothesis.”

“Huh?”

“It means at least this coffee is kinda good and you probably shouldn’t think too hard about why.”

“What?”

“Look, the LEAP basically makes the lifeline optimality approximation a little better with each perturbation. It delivers little quantum kicks to one lifeline at a time, and there’s wiggle room because of quantization, which keeps the world line kinda stable. At least that’s how I think it works.”

He paused again to ponder.

“At least on this patio, for about an hour or two after sunset every evening. Something to do with radiant energy levels. So we’re running out of time if you want to do this.”

He paused again.

“Of course, there’s a non-zero probability everything is for the worst, and this is the worst of all possible worlds. But then hey, there’s nowhere to go but up from there, right?”

“So you’re saying my life…will be..have been… better no matter what I tweet?”

“Within limits, yes.”

“What limits? I shouldn’t tell my younger self to kill himself?”

“It would probably be for the best if we avoided implanting that particular idea in younger you,” said Omyo kindly.

“How the hell does all this actually work anyway? Why Twitter? And what’s in the box? And don’t give me shit about knots and bundles.”

“There’s a power source, and as I understand, a vial of Selenium is involved. But if I explained the physics and math to you, would you even understand? If it works, why do you care how it works? Do you know how your phone works? Or how that vile green mush you’re drinking affects your brain?”

Ryan looked at Omyo appraisingly, “You don’t actually know how the box works at the level of circuits and things, do you? I bet you just bullshit about knots and stuff.”

“Well, Li — the guy who built it — doesn’t really know either. He wanted to call it the Li Perturbator, but changed the name when I pointed out everybody would blame him if the thing blew up the universe.”

“Can it?”

“It hasn’t yet.”

“How did you get your hands on the thing anyway?”

“Never mind that. All that matters is that I have it now.”

“And what the hell are you anyway? You don’t talk like a physicist or engineer. Are you an Internet marketer or something?”

Omyo looked offended for a moment.

“I am an ontological detective. I solve ontological mysteries.”

“Sounds like a thinly disguised fictional alter ego for a particularly sloppy science fiction writer. Where’s the… uhh… ontological crime scene here?”

“Well, if do this, you’ll create one for me to study.”

“Wouldn’t that make you an ontological criminal?”

“Are we doing this or not?”

“Why do I have to hide behind the potted plant?”

Omyo gave Ryan stern look. “If this works and you go poof, I’m not explaining what happened to these other people. The knot field strength falls off quadratically, so anybody within a hundred yards might have…residual ghost memories or something after the world line shifts. It’s entirely possible.”

Ryan looked dubious.

“I guess that’s alright then,” he said reluctantly. “So it’s a hundred thousand for a single tweet? Assuming it works, that’s a bit steep. And I’d basically be paying you to end this life. So it’s like murder.”

“You’d be murdering yourself. I just push a button. And if it works, you won’t be around to care, will you?”

Ryan continued to look dubious.

“There’s no catch, and zero risk on the transaction itself,” Omyo said, encouragingly.

“Of course, that doesn’t include your younger self making horrible new life choices if he sees the tweet. But I’m sure you can trust your younger self,” he added.

Ryan was silent for a moment, then shrugged.

“What the hell. Let’s do it.”

***

“Okay, so minus the characters for my handle, I have 130 characters? That isn’t much. Can we set it up to send multiple tweets?”

“Don’t you watch time-travel movies? Less is more when you’re screwing around with histories and futures. Besides, it doesn’t work that way. If the first tweet works, the rest will not carry over to the altered lifeline. They’ll go temporally dead or something.”

“What if I make a horrible mistake?”

Omyo pondered briefly, then said, “You could include instructions in the tweet to come back to me, say right here tomorrow evening, after we make the perturbation.”

He scribbled briefly in a small notebook.

“37 characters for instructions. Leaves you with 93 characters for the actual message.”

“How many times have you tried this?”

“Of those who went poof? Six. Maybe seven.”

“And how many of them came back?”

“Zero.”

Ryan considered the information thoughtfully.

“What the hell, if it works, I’ll want to double down.”

“You will need to leave a sealed, hand-written letter with me. With a fingerprint and some sort of identifying information so future-other-you believes present-you.”

***

“Let me read this back to you. The tweet reads: Don’t marry Emma. Remember spill Junior year party before history mid-term — FutureYou. GOTO Em Cafe 8/26/17:17:00. This goes out 3 days before you propose to her in 2011, six years back in time.”

“Unless we can get it closer.”

“That’s the nearest available targeting hash.”

“Alright, let’s do it.”

“Ready?”

I’LL BE BACK. Unless I don’t go away at all.”

Omyo tapped a button on the app.

There was a mild buzzing sound. The indicator turned red briefly, then returned to a steady yellow. The display began blinking dashes.

He looked up at the potted plant. Ryan had vanished.

Omyo hit send on Ryan’s phone, waited a few minutes for the confirmation, then lobbed it over the patio wall into the bushes. He put the LEAP away in his bag, and stood up to leave the cafe.

***

At dusk, the next day, Omyo returned to the Em Cafe, expecting nothing. It was another beautiful evening. The patio was again almost empty.

To his intense surprise, Ryan was already there, sitting by the same table.

He looked nervous and fidgety, had dark hair and no tan. He was dressed in slacks and a dress shirt.

But it was Ryan.

He sat down, and put his bag up on the table.

“So Ryan 2.0, you made it back here. How come you picked this particular table?”

“I don’t know. It just seemed right, like I’ve been here before. Are you the guy who sent me the tweet six years ago saying not to marry Emma and telling me to come here today?”

“You sent yourself that tweet. Twenty four hours ago by my time. Here, read this.”

Ryan 2.0 read silently for several minutes.

“This is my handwriting.”

“And your fingerprint, compare it. Here, use this inkpad.”

“So what the hell is this? Am I being punked? You’re saying another me…”

“Ryan 1.0”

“…sent a tweet to younger me,  and now I have a different life?”

“Yes. You’re Ryan 2.0 now.”

“Are you’re also… a 2.0? Whatever your name is?”

“No, I’m the same in both your life lines. And never mind my name.”

“Assuming I believe you, why did I send myself back here?”

“So you could try again. Double down if you did better, fix it if you did worse.”

“How the hell am I supposed to know that? I didn’t live the other life. I didn’t marry Emma.”

Omyo set up the LEAP, and pointed to the indicator.

“Hmm 46, the indicator was at 63 last time. So objectively, you ended up better. A lot better apparently, though I don’t really know how to read this meter. Let’s say almost 50% better.”

“This whole thing is dumb.”

“Well, money’s always a good way to count. Ryan 1.0 was worth a lot of money. He sold some sort of app to a Chinese company for twelve million dollars. What are you worth?”

Ryan 2.0 looked up with sudden interest. “So did I, but I made less than a million.”

Omyo looked carefully at Ryan, then at the display, then back again.

“Well, money isn’t everything. Or maybe it is. So you want to try again? Maybe a tweet to undo the first tweet? Or try something different maybe? How about something cheery and motivational?”

Ryan 2.0 was silent for several moments.

Finally he said, “No. There’s no going back there. I know why Ryan 1.0 married Emma, and why he might have swung harder at the app than I did, and landed a better deal. It would have been for all the wrong reasons. Did he appear happy?”

Omyo ignored the question. “Are you happy as Ryan 2.0, or do you want to try again?”

Ryan smiled slowly, and said, “You know, I do believe this ridiculous story. I don’t know why, something about this place. I am getting a strong deja vu vibe here, like I’ve done this before.”

“Knot shadow memories. Yes, you’ve been here. You were here yesterday, my time.”

“So this letter, the tweet, it’s all real…”

“Real as that bilge you’re drinking. That didn’t change I see. How about you prepay for a few more then, in case Ryan 3.0 ends up even poorer than 2.0? Not that money is everything of course.”

“Do I get a discount?”

“How five more tweets for 400 grand?”

“That’s about half my net worth, but what the hell.It’s a deal. I’ll just need a few minutes to set up the bitcoin transfer. And gimme some paper, I want to write a letter to Ryan 3.0.”

***

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Confirm for me one more time. Brains good, courage better. Remember Chicago, June 02, night b4 big meeting. — FutureYou. Resched GOTO Em Cafe 8/27/17:17:00. Target date, November third, 2011. Six months after you broke it off.”

“Confirmed.”

“Well, we know at least the rescheduling part worked since I’m not seeing two of you right now.”

“Maybe that world line exploded or something.”

“Maybe. The knot seems stable though. I’ll see you again, this time tomorrow.”

“I’ll see you then.”

This time Omyo watched Ryan 2.0 disappear from behind the potted plant. He was there one instant, gone the next, without any drama. Nobody else noticed.

***

It was hot and muggy the next day. Omyo worked up a sweat walking up the hill to the Em Cafe. This time, he was not surprised to see Ryan there.

Much thinner, unshaven, with dark circles under his eyes, and what looked like clothes that had been slept in for a week. But it was Ryan.

The preliminaries went quickly this time. Ryan 3.0 seemed to somehow sense everything Omyo said ahead of time, and seemed unsurprised by the contents of the letter from Ryan 2.0.

“So from different lifelines, I tweeted at my younger self twice, and each time I changed my life?”

“Correct, Ryan 3.0. You’re here thanks to life line gravity assists from Ryan 1.0 and Ryan 2.0.”

“And this meter thingie says 39, and that’s supposed to mean my life is better?”

“You tell me.”

“Well, let’s see. I worked my ass off, built something truly great, then lost it all. Now I’m fifty grand in debt, beaten, broken, and an utter failure.  So your shitty little box there is full of it. My life is not better. I don’t disbelieve your story. I feel like I already knew it in a way, but that number is bullshit.”

Omyo grinned hugely at Ryan 3.0, and said, “You followed your passion, didn’t you?”

Ryan 3.0 glared at Omyo.

“Well, you’re in luck. Ryan 2.0 pre-paid for a few more do-overs. So we can try again if you like. Or not. I’ve been paid so I don’t care either way.”

Ryan 3.0 shrugged. “Might as well. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

“You realize you’ll still see those first two tweets. This third tweet will have to make the course correction.”

“Yeah I get it, I get it. Gimme some paper. I’m writing another letter.”

***

“You sure you want to pass along this long-ass 4-page letter to Ryan 4.0? And you’re sure you want to leave it unsealed?”

“I want you to read it too. He may need some persuasion.”

“So this time, it is: Don’t follow passion. What do you have to show for that $17,800 in 2009? — FutureYou. Resched Em Cafe 8/28/17:17:00 and we’re targeting July 2012?”

“Let’s do it.”

“Lock and load, baby.”

***

This time, it was muggy and overcast as Omyo, once again, made his way up the hill to the Em Cafe at dusk.

Once more, Ryan was already there. The preliminaries went by even quicker this time, Ryan finishing Omyo’s sentences impatiently.

Ryan 4.0, leaned back comfortably with a big smirk across his face, with his feet up on the table. He crumpled up the letter Omyo had handed him, and lobbed it with an elegant wrist flourish into the trash can ten feet away.

“Whoosh!” he said, with satisfaction.

Omyo, looked at him impassively, then got up, ambled over to the trash can, retrieved the letter, smoothed the sheets out on the table, and slid them towards Ryan 4.0.

“You should read that letter. Ryan 3.0 spent twenty minutes writing it.”

“Who gives a shit? I am not a billionaire, but I’m worth a couple of hundred million, I am in great shape, meeting all sorts of women, and having the time of my life.”

“Ryan 3.0 did steer you there, you know.”

“Well, the meter on your thingie says 21, and you said that’s lower than last time and better, right? So who gives a crap what Ryan 3.0 thinks or thought? I know better. Your thingie says so.”

“Read the first line of the second page.”

Ryan 4.0 reluctantly picked up the sheets of paper, and read silently for a moment.

“Is this the part you mean? If this works out, there’s a chance you’ll turn into a smarmy asshole who’s empty inside. So you’re saying I’m a smarmy asshole and I’m empty inside?”

“I am not saying anything. Ryan 3.0 is saying that to Ryan 4.0.”

Ryan 4.0 was angry now. He threw the letter back on the table.

“Well, screw him. I’m done. I’ve got nowhere I want to go from here.”

“And nowhere you’d rather be than here?”

Ryan 4.0 scowled.

“I think Ryan 3.0 had a suggestion for you on the last page.”

Ryan 4.0 picked up the letter again, still scowling.

***

“This is shit. Can you believe this guy? Love matters. But only if it is a leap of faith. — FutureYou. Resched Em Cafe 8/29/17:17:00. Ryan 3.0 is… was?… full of shit. You’re telling me he was depressed and broke? But he was still trying to steer things two steps out? Jeez, what a control freak. I don’t know why the hell I’m listening to him.”

“You want to add a personal reminder hook? There’s room.”

“Screw that. He thinks I’ll make a leap of faith. Let’s see if I do. I’m betting I’m there already, at what did you call it? The Leibniz limit. This will be a rerun.”

“Well, that ought to show Ryan 3.0,” said Omyo, scrolling through a list on his phone. “He suggested three months out from the last perturbation. I have… let’s see, a targeting hash available in October 2012. That’s about 3 months after the passion tweet.”

“Whatever. What do I care? I’m wildly successful, but Ryan fucking precious snowflake 3.0 says I must be empty inside. Let’s see if he can steer better, even though he’s worse off. Was worse off.”

“You could ignore the suggestion. You could make up your own fourth tweet. You could quit.”

For a brief moment, a look of sheer terror flitted across Ryan 4.0’s face.

“I can’t think of anything. And what the hell, I bet I can top myself.”

Omyo shook his head dubiously. “You think love matters will do the trick? Maybe you were right the first time. Maybe you should quit while you’re ahead. The void isn’t so bad if you have money.”

“Fuck that, I’m doing this.”

“And no letter?”

“No more letters. You can pass on 3.0’s letter to 5.0. He wants to steer, let’s see how good he is at dead reckoning.”

***

There was something different about Ryan 5.0, as he sat calmly waiting on the patio, which was empty except for him this time. His hair was long, and he had a straggling beard. He wore a simple teeshirt and shorts.

Omyo looked at him suspiciously.

“You’re enlightened or something, aren’t you?”

“You must be the medium through whom I have been shaping my own life. Strange, I don’t know who you are, yet I feel I know you. I recognized you the moment you walked in, though I know I’ve never seen you.”

“Here, shut up for a minute, Enlightened One, and read this.”

Ryan 5.0 read the letter from Ryan 3.0 carefully, and with quiet gravity, while Omyo set up the LEAP once again. He then listened with a serene look as Omyo went through the explanations yet again.

Omyo stopped abruptly.

“None of this matters to you now, does it? What happened after that love tweet?”

“Nothing. Things happened of course, but there is no story to tell. Things just… happened. They flowed as they were meant to.”

“Did you make more than two hundred million?”

“I made three billion, since you ask, not that it’s important. But there is no story there either, and I have given it all away now. The money once had a purpose that flowed through me. It has served my purpose, and I have served its purpose.”

“Fuck, you are all enlightened and shit.”

“Yet, you my new-old friend, look much more troubled than before. Not that I can actually remember my past selves as you can of course, but somehow…”

He paused and gazed with deep compassion into Omyo’s eyes.

“I sense that our paths have crossed too many times my friend, and that you have had the worse of our encounters. I am deeply sorry.”

“You sense that do you?” Omyo said cheerfully. “Well, in that case, how about…”

Before he could finish, a voice interrupted from the next table.

“Omyo, eh? Is that what you’re calling yourself now.”

Omyo turned to look at the speaker, a tall, stiff, and clearly enraged Chinese man.

“LI!” he yelled, delightedly, “now this is what I call a nice surprise. I was about to call you last week. But you know how it is in August.”

Li’s frown wavered for a moment, then returned forcefully.

“Sure you were.”

“What are you doing here anyway? But let me introduce you to Ryan, or Ryan 5.0 rather. Or maybe we should call him Ryan Omega or something since he’s all enlightened now. And all it took was four perturbations to his lifeline, thanks to your invention. Ryan 5.0, meet Li, inventor of the LEAP. “

“An invention that you stole. Let me introduce you Mr. Ryan, to my old colleague, Mr. Omkar Yogi.”

“Well,” said Omyo breezily, “in my defense, I really, really wanted it. Besides, I was only borrowing it to test my Twitter targeting hash idea. I was going to return it.”

“At least you’re not pretending you’re not a criminal….”

“I prefer ontological detective…”

“… but did you really think I wouldn’t find you? Knot field spikes in exactly the same place at the same time, evening after evening…”

“…I wasn’t trying to hide. Like I said I was going to ret…”

“…I’d have found you a lot earlier…”

“..urn it… eventually.”

“…if I could have booked time earlier on the graviton detector at the university.”

Li’s frown weakened into an uncertain look. Omyo, for some obscure reason, looked pleased with himself.

“Gentlemen, if I may interrupt,” said Ryan 5.0, “what does it mean if this device is blinking green? And is that number supposed to be flickering between 0 and 1?”

“WHAT?” yelled Li and Omyo together.

***

“What’s the zero-point resolution on this thing?”

“It doesn’t matter. We never saw it go below 18 in the lab.”

Ryan 5.0 looked mildly concerned. “And that’s a bad thing?” he inquired politely.

“I don’t know,” said Li. “We’ve never probed such an extreme regime of convergence.”

“I’m no physicist of course, though I have studied many things, but shouldn’t there be some sort of conservation law or uncertainty principle that applies here? If this number, whatever it is, is so low, shouldn’t something else be really high?”

Li looked at Ryan 5.0 with distaste, “I don’t know what Omyo has been telling you, but…”

“Well, humor me for a moment. He’s been accumulating memories across a section of five of my lifelines in, what did you call it? The knot field? Is that…good? His mind, his memories, aren’t they split across five world lines now?”

Li looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he turned to look at Omyo.

“You’ve actually been in the core of the knot field of each perturbation? Why would you do that?”

“Well, I had to, didn’t I? How else was I supposed to complete the transaction? I needed the old world line to persist while I completed it. But only a minute tops, each time. Five minutes exposure, max.”

“We have no idea what that does to a mind, being stretched across a Leibniz-Cauchy bundle that way.”

“It’s not like I was making horcruxes. This is physics, not Harry Potter.”

“Perhaps,” interrupted Ryan 5.0 again, “we might learn something by pointing that device at Mr. Yogi here.”

“You know what? We might,” said Li.

He reached over to the LEAP, and swiveled the sensor array so it pointed to Omyo.

The indicator turned a blinking red. The number raced up and settled into a hover, flickering between 99 and 100.

“Dammit!” said Omyo. “That can’t be good.”

“I don’t know what 100 means,” said Ryan 5.0, “but if I feel really good about being near 0, then it does not appear that 100 can be good.”

“Indeed it does not,” said Li.

***

“How on earth would sending another tweet help?”

“Maybe if Ryan 5.0 goes to Ryan 6.0, my readings will fall and his will go back up. Or something. I don’t know. It will clearly do something. Ask him. It’s his idea.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s better than hanging around waiting to find out what happens if I stay near 100 for too long. Fuck, I think I can feel myself decohering as we speak.”

“You’re imagining things. I suppose we can try it, since Ryan 5.0 is willing. It’s not like either of you can get more extreme.”

“The way I figure,” said Ryan 5.0, “if we send an empty tweet, with just another rendezvous at this exact time, two of me should show up here. Maybe if we’re close enough, but just enough out of phase, we’ll cancel out or something, and Mr. Yogi here will…reset or something.”

“You know what? That kinda makes sense mathematically. At least the first part. You, Mr. Ryan, should vanish if you switch to a near-identical lifeline that’s 180 degrees out of phase. Or maybe you’ll reinforce infinitely into a minor god or something.”

Li looked at Omyo thoughtfully. “You on the other hand, I don’t know about resetting, but  your lifeline is clearly entangled with Ryan’s. But whatever happens to you. You’ll deserve it probably. Maybe you’ll pull back from 100, maybe you’ll push past, whatever that means.”

***

“So this is it. Em Cafe 8/29/17:17:31. No actual content. And we’re targeting five minutes after the previous tweet, in October 2012?”

“Correct,” said Omyo, “and if it works, Ryan 6.0 should walk through that door in a few minutes, on a nearly identical lifeline to Ryan 5.0. Maybe even the exact same lifeline, except for a phase shift, if they’re closer than the quantization limit.”

“Or the two lifelines may cancel all the way back to the origin, and you’ll never see me again.”

“Maybe,” said Omyo.

“Ready?” said Li.

“Ready,” said Ryan 5.0, from behind his potted plant.

“Ready,” said Omyo.

“I’m going to put this on a five-second delay so Omyo and I can get out of the core of the knot field.”

“Whatever, let’s just go already.”

Li hit send, and then hurriedly backed away to the far end of patio.

There was a slight hum, followed by a small pop, and an acrid smell.

For a moment Li thought he say a ghostly figure, very like Ryan, by the patio door.

The next second, there was nothing there.

Li looked over to the potted plant. This time Ryan disappeared quite slowly, his benevolent eyes fading last, glowing gently with infinite compassion for the universe.

He turned to look at Omyo. There was nobody there.

He walked over to the table. The lights and display on the LEAP had blown out, and there was a thin tendril of smoke spiraling up from it.

“I wonder where Yogi ended up,” he muttered to himself in a disturbed undertone.

***

Omyo came to in pitch darkness. He was flat on his back.

He wiggled his fingers, then his toes. His eyes adjusted to the dark, and he could see he was in some sort of box. Larger than a coffin. Possibly a small shipping container.

“I don’t think I’m dead,” he said, aloud. His voice sounded strange, yet familiar.

He lay still for a moment. From the outside, there came a deep, distinctly feline roar, followed by an extended cackle of what sounded like  a pack of hyenas.

“I am either in a zoo, or somewhere in Africa.”

“Or possibly, hell.”

He closed his eyes again, and listened to his own breathing for a moment.

“I think, maybe I pushed past 100.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing.”

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Def proposing to her in October. Thanks.

  2. Will you continue the story ?? or Is it just ends there ?? What actually is the theme ?? Is it everything happens for good and better ?? Or Am I wrong ??

  3. 👍

  4. Are you trying to screw with people’s minds by letting “Ryan 4.0” post, raising the possibility that such altering of the past is at least theoretically possible?

  5. Great beginning! 10 more of these short stories and you have Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Silicon Valley or the Digital Ecosystem…
    Looking forward…

    • I’m assuming Ryan’s future just becomes more open to change and instability, not just material improvements.

      • Will Omyo wake up in the Barbarian forest on @vgr’s map 70 years in the future and then explore the terrain around and report back to the present??…got me thinking story lines, characters…great set up!

        • Given that each alteration transports Omyo and Ryan into a parallel/alternate universe, not a future one, I’d be hesitant to say they’ll go into the future. Instead, because of the not-so-serious tone of the story, I’m predicting Ryan will become some kind of _slightly_ evil overlord who’s shipped Omyo in the container to feed him to the hyenas. Plus, the story seems to be set in the future, with the word “bourgie” having metamorphosed from African-American Vernacular English to mainstream usage. It already _is_ 70 years in the future.

          • I’ll point out one obvious implication of the story itself: if Ryan had a twitter account between 2011-2013, that limits his age, and therefore the time-frame for the story, quite a bit.

            Also ‘bourgie’ has already made it into the mainstream…

            As for the rest, thanks for the ideas :D. I haven’t actually made up my mind how to develop the story further, so anything is possible.

          • By the way, is it possible for me to request that you remove a comment?

        • Given how much the future may change, the Barbarian forest and the very axes of the cultural map might cease to exist in 70 years.

        • Given the amount of change, the Forest itself might be considered pessimistic or might not exist.

  6. Zach Kowalik says:

    I was anticipating an ending more akin to The Alchemist, however, that would have made this story a creative iteration instead of something novel and imaginative. The perplexing part is that Omyo 2.0 retained the memories of Omyo 1.0 (labels assume this was his first passage) and his thoughts picked up right where 1.0’s left off. Hence, “Maybe that’s a good thing”.
    Thanks Venkatesh!

  7. as a representation of ‘silicon valley’s’ disconnect from communicating narrative outside it’s own walls, this is good, as a stand alone global piece I think you will find a slower pace and calmer illustrations of surroundings more broadly… digestible.
    really interesting concepts in there, no doubt.

  8. I am sure there is a movie here. Chris Nolan, are you listening?

  9. I notice a certain fairy-tale-like cadence to this story, especially with the repeating element of our character returning each with an incremented counter. It had an inception like hypnotic induction effect on me and put me right to sleep, (no offense intended). Now I wonder if the repetitious nature of fairy tales is designed for just that purpose, to induce children to sleep with a hypnotic countdown, or up, in this case.

  10. After reading your story, I feel your style as a fiction writer oddly enough resembles Borges because you don’t just focus on the characters; you use your stories to raise questions and insert the fantastic elements (i.e LEAP) to symbolize the abstract concepts you reflect on in the story. In this story in particular, Ryan’s various incarnations and their experiences reveal your pondering of the question: “What counts as a good life?”.