This one's a response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Ten More Titles over on Terribleminds.Com. If this challenge seems similar to last week's, that's due to the fact that Mr. Wendig got a little lazy. Fortunately, the titles we were given this time around were spectacular.
This story's a little...different. Enjoy?
1 September, 2019
Greetings students of the Newman-Phillips school,
We are pleased to inform you that, as a result of your completion of your coursework at the school, you have been selected to participate in a project which will surely seem so incredible to you as to appear impossible.
You are going to be a time-travelers.
While this will be a great adventure, perhaps the greatest experienced by any human, we must be blunt: Your journey has a purpose, and it is not one to be taken lightly. The future is broken.
In a time between yours and ours, humanity lost their way. They ceased to be the masters of their own fate. They very nearly ceased. They may yet. We have selected you so that you might arouse your species, our species, and steer them clear of the disaster ahead.
Here is what will happen: This evening, you will meet in the gymnasium cavern. It is being equipped with beds, terminals, and enough food and supplies to survive your journey. You will go to sleep tonight and when you awaken, ten years will have passed. You will be administered drugs to ensure you sleep. We have not tested the effects of time travel on a waking mind, but the results of our simulations are disturbing. You will not want to be awake.
The device which will allow you traverse will require time, perhaps a week, to recharge. When it has recharged, you will go to sleep again and make another jump of ten years. You will repeat this process several times until you arrive at the critical time, prior to the beginning of troubles.
We have tried to anticipate your concerns. Here are the answers to some of the questions we presume you will have:
1. The machine is a small gravity wave generator. It is not ideal, but we were limited by how much information we could send to your time and what resources were available.
2. We can send matter, and even living beings forward in time, but only information can travel to the past. Otherwise, we would have been equipped to solve the problem ourselves.
3. You can use your waking hours to learn about the current time period, but you will not be able to leave the cavern. We cannot afford the possibility that any of you might be abducted or otherwise unable to continue your journey. You are all of enormous importance. We will attempt to provide additional information as is possible. However...
4. Time travel is an imperfect activity under the best of circumstances. These are not the best of circumstances. Your jumps may not all be exactly ten years in length and you may under- or over-shoot the expected time of arrival. You are the brightest minds of your generation. We trust you to improvise.
5. When you arrive, you will not only be able to leave the gym cavern, but you will also be able to leave the complex. It will be terrifying, but we know that if anyone can adapt, it is you. Again, we trust you.
6. We have located a small network of people living near the time period when we expect you to complete your journey. You will be provided information about them during your waking periods. They will help you acclimate to the new world. They will assist you in any way possible. They will be your most valuable resource. Use them well.
This opportunity will not be extended to any others. The cost in time, effort, and most especially resources to coordinate this effort in our distant past is immense. We teeter on a very fine edge between success and failure. Success would restore humanity to it's rightful role. Failure would mean oblivion.
We understand that this must sound insane. It is insane. It is the last throw of the dice and, in such circumstances, one does not always have the luxury of consulting the odds.
We deeply regret having pulled you in to this without your consent. We know this is a long shot, but understand that you exist in the blind spot of what humanity is up against. They'll never see you coming. You can do this.
We love you. We believe in you.
Shit," Carl said to himself, waking up at his desk for the third time this week. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and felt articulate enough to elaborate on his initial reaction.
"Shit shit shit shit shit shit."
2039 was just starting to come online, right on schedule, and, while Carl had made all of the tweaks he'd planned on making, it didn't feel finished. He was a stickler for details, but he had to keep reminding himself that he was comparing his work to his own experience, something the students couldn't do.
In the early 2000's, with the rise of the internet, it became possible to access an unprecedented fraction of human activity. Shortly thereafter, it became possible to make a backup of what was essentially the entire network. In theory, one could then restore the whole thing and experience the internet as of a certain date in the past.
In a sense, the hard part was over. Running the students through the most of the first two decades of the century offered the most opportunities to fuck up the continuity, to give the kids a chance to bump up against the walls of their garden. If they'd made it this far, the rest should be easy. They'd only be spending a week in 2039 while “the tunnel machine recharged” and they'd spend most of that seriously disoriented.
People had been anticipating the singularity long before it actually happened, but they'd gotten it almost comically wrong. Most people assumed it would be started by an artificial intelligence which made the leap to self-awareness, growing in all ways imaginable at incredible speed, outstripping the human ability to react.
What actually happened was so much more mundane, so much more ridiculous, people never saw it coming. Instead of a big, bad AI enslaving humanity, it was all about marketing. Tiny bots, scripts, and agents were increasingly used to push advertising and advertising-disguised-as-content to users.
Users responded with their own little automated surrogates, some of which blocked the adbots, some of which worked with them to make the decisions about purchasing staple items or even planning entertainment. It was this virtual swarm of automatons which was half arms race and half evolving API which wound up leaving humanity in the dust.
The template for the singularity turned out to be a short story about lucky cats. It wasn't slavery per se in that the agents were really serving the users, but it wasn't what anyone who lived before the singularity would recognize as "living," either.
The question that Carl and everyone else on this project asked themselves was “How the hell do you fix it?” . There just weren't enough people who wanted things to revert to a state where humans called the shots. Hell, there weren't even many who felt there was a problem with their state of domestication.
Since education was as automated and spoon-fed as everything else, new recruits were hard to come by. Malcolm, their de facto leader, had a mad idea at the beginning, almost two decades ago.
“What if we raise our own allies, off the grid? An underground, bonsai society? We'd control every aspect of it. Raise them to be rebels, to think for themselves?”
“They're kids, Malc. You were one once, right?” That was Janx. She had the strongest educational background among the leaders. “How often did you do what you'd be taught to do?”
Everyone was silent for a moment, and when Malcolm finally spoke, it was almost to himself. “Not very often, but just often enough to know that reverse-psychology wouldn't work any better.”
Malcolm sighed. “What we need, then, is more of us. Anyone have a cloning machine?” He paused for a few, dark chuckles to pass. “We need people raised as we were, who knew what it was like. People who fight against today because they remember yesterday.”
Carl remembered he'd had a fierce internal debate before coughing and raising his hand. He'd known it was crazy, he'd known it would swallow his life, but he was the sort of guy who couldn't help speaking up when he'd thought of something no one else had.
“Actually, I think there might be a way...”
That was twenty years ago. Now they were just a few weeks, or a few decades, away from the end of the planning and the beginning of...whatever came next. They were just a few short weeks away from delivering the letter.