“You can not travel back in time. It’s impossible and why would you want to? But time travel is possible, time travel into the future. You just have to switch out the lights and go to sleep, you just have to wait, and then the future is there for you and you can see it and it will be the ultimate adventure. You’ll live through times no one from your generation will ever know, with cultures you could never predict and technologies that feel like impossible magic. I will be there with you all the way, I’ll fill in the gaps so you know what to do. There are conditions, of course. Only two of you can travel per Bubble. You can never take passengers, if you miss a sleep, you will be stuck, and obviously, you can never go back. Those are the conditions of time travel.” Zues, Future Orientation. OS.
The first 1000.
‘The Bubble is a sacred place, it is your true home now’.
‘Home’, they said, when this endeavour began some 3,000 years ago, or what in my lifetime feels like three years ago now, ‘is where you will always return to after each adventure into the future’.
They had been right, when everything is unfamiliar, it’s important to have an anchor, a grounding, and the Bubble, for all its colourful décor, soft furnishings and mirrors was the most familiar thing to me apart from, of course, my fellow traveller, my wife, Sasha.
The world span below on its axis, a vibrant blue orb with oceans of matted, swirling clouds. When the Bubble woke me from my first thousand-year slumber, I felt joy at seeing the old girl there. I had almost feared it would be a blackened ashy stone in the void on my return to consciousness. War, disease, climate, an asteroid strike, the unforeseen, ‘everything that can happen will eventually’, that was what we were also told.
After the first thousand years in a stable orbit around Earth – this was deemed the safest way to remain untouched from Earthly changes – I had returned to the project’s secret location with trepidation. The Orientation Station was a fortress in a remote mountain, designed to be hidden, to be robust, to withstand time’s claws no matter what, but I harboured a fear it had been demolished as we approached to land the Bubble. A thousand years was a long, long time.
We predicted all along that the climate would be different, that much was obvious but how humans dealt with it, was the biggest mystery, the biggest question.
When we awoke, when the transparent hood of the chill-chamber slid away to reveal to us we had survived, an excitement, a swell of anticipation, filled our hearts immediately. We wanted to validate humanity or if not, understand with pride that we were the last of us and would live to witness the world at the precipice of human extinction.
The Earth was not that different to look at from space. When the spherical spacecraft began its descent vector, however, we could observe, that much had changed. There were desert regions of course, where before it had been green, but it wasn’t the natural changes that gave us pause, it was the matrix of lights, configurations that looked distinctly alien, arrestingly unfamiliar. It was affirming at least, to see that humans had found a way to evolve despite all the prophecy of doom from the scientific community, all that time ago.
After we landed in the long shadow of the mountain, we made our way in protective suits, enduring the punishing heat, up to the massive, jagged crack in the rock face that led to the tunnel, straight to the wide dark, debriefing room, where the AI guide, Zeus, was still functioning and the independent power supply had been switched on in anticipation of our arrival. The other three Bubbles had already docked, and we greeted our fellow time travellers, each a married couple, with smiles and a palpable buzz of excitement. We were officially explorers of the future. There were several tick-box exercises to get out of the way, performed by the robot plug-in of Zeus. There was a physical and mental examination, a pill to swallow to catch up with immunity from new diseases, and of course some personal grooming. When we settled down Zeus explained what we had missed and how we could proceed. Most of the world had turned to inorganic dust but parts of it were terraformed with technology and were climate controlled.
It transpired that soon after our freezes were initiated, somewhat ironically, researchers worked out how to switch off ageing in human cells and ageing became the basis of a commodity, afforded by the rich. People were replacing body parts that were damaged in accidents and upgrading themselves with technological organs and prosthetics. I remember the AI saying ‘you may be shocked at seeing citizens, as some are more spare parts than human, in their appearance’. It also informed us ‘there were no more cities, no kinds of vehicles, although there were plenty of drones, and that having children was illegal, we would likely not see one on our visit to this future’.
The world’s fragile new ecosystem had to be balanced with engineered nature, so the finite population of people who could not die of age, guarded their own numbers and banned childbirth. It drove the practice underground. It was the strangest news we could have imagined.
The Bubbles could be cloaked to be invisible, so we drifted toward the habituated zones, which were unlike anything I could have foreseen, bleak yet fascinating. People resided in long curled silos half embedded in the ground. There were areas they would congregate, not unlike parks, but that was it, they had technology that made them able to be in places in their minds instantaneously, so there was low motivation to create outside spaces of interest.
We disguised ourselves to fit in, with fake body parts printed out by Zeus at the OS, but realised quickly we were held with suspicion as most people knew each other well. It was obvious on reflection – and this was the kind of thinking we needed to get better at – they were living with each other for hundreds of years, so strange new faces were not common. They also talked via chips inserted in their brains, so we were not privy to most of the conversations.
It was tough. One of the team was taken away, not arrested as such, but he was forcibly led by an official-looking group who represented the community we were skirting around. They put their strong metal arms on his shoulder and dragged him to a silo-like building slowly, without saying a word. We kept walking despite the way some of them stared at us, and eventually, we broke into a run. We had no idea what happened to him but as an anomaly in their world, I suspected the worst. That’s when we decided to return to orbit for our safety and wait out another Millennial cycle. The lost time traveller was Jude Orchard, his poor wife had to return to orbit alone, broken inside, adjusting to a new eternity without him. It must have been crushingly lonely to return to the chill-chamber, with an empty one next to her.
The second time we thawed from our chambers and plummeted back to Earth, it was different. There had been a massive upheaval, a flip, a turnaround.
We congregated at OS. Zeus was upbeat in its delivery of the assessment of the era, like the AI was fascinated with the recent revelations. There were families everywhere. The uniformity of habitations was no longer present. Villages seemed to proliferate the landscapes, scattered, tangled, irregular. Franky, it was a relief. Zues was having trouble with some of the languages that had evolved, they were becoming more efficient and harder to decipher. The era was distinctly more animalistic and carefree, as if a tide had changed or a revolution had erupted against the wealthy age hoarders. We were a little shocked to see sexual practices in public – no one even turned their heads, like it was no more intimate than a handshake or hug. Cars, or something akin, were back, they hovered over the sands and designed rivers, with people chatting and performing unfamiliar rituals inside them. The clothes were outlandish, beautiful and stylish, and I could swear people were taller in stature, like time had stretched them somehow in an evolutionary boost.
Jude’s partner, Kim, was depressed. She would sit for hours just holding herself with her arms. We managed finally to pick up the basics of a local language and with the right clothes, blended in enough to converse a little with a man who was alone on a bench. It felt like talking to a lone member of an untouched tribe in a remote jungle for the first time. We were nervous. He was a little high on some narcotics so was not suspicious of us. Kim broke all her traveller vows in a matter of an hour. She told him the truth about our project, to which he just nodded in acceptance, she kissed him and she stayed with him and never came back with us.
Zeus autopiloted her Bubble so it was off-world, no longer a cradle, no longer a time machine, just an empty vessel in perpetual orbit. We realised that when we would next awake, she would have been long dead, so we held a funeral before we departed for orbit, to find closure of her vanishing, in a ritual of our own from our own time.
The last time.
This time, the third time, I felt ready for anything. I had become accustomed already to the pace of complete transformation of all things. People, animals, plants and the places were a flow of life that ever changed in temperament but remained at its core, made of the same elements. Anyway, I thought I was ready, but the third time surprised me, as it did all of us.
The first clue to the truth of the third Millennial cycle was the houses, if you could call them that, glimmering floating domes, suspended in the clouds, as if hiding, as we returned to Earth. They were held up by some odd gravitation defying technology. We almost hit one on our decent. When the Bubble broke through the cloud layer, we gasped at what we saw. The Earth’s surface glowed in a purple hue, with a thick, spiky, low ground-hugging vegetation that I did not recognise. There were odd twisting, metallic structures sporadically distributed, and on the ground amongst these tall winding objects, there sat what I presumed were spacecraft, large sprawling machines like enormous moths with hooked metal feet dug into the ground. They looked like they were armed for fighting, with gun-like protrusions under the wings.
I initially wondered if first contact with an interstellar race had been achieved but I noticed a flag and insignia on one of the ships, which could only mean humans. This was a war zone – I guessed instead of country vs country, it was ground vs sky or Earth vs Mars colonies – I did not know. By all appearances, a people had been forced to literally abandon the land and hide in the clouds. Our Bubble stopped mid-flight to assess. The Orientation Station had been compromised too.
Sasha unclipped herself from the seat and paced up and down the room, “We should probably go back into orbit? The OS has been infiltrated.”
“We can’t,” I said. “Future orientation is vital for us to keep exploring, we need to ensure it remains functional and hidden at all costs. We have to do something”
“They might kill us?”
“We might need to kill them,” was my curt reply.
I heard myself say the words but could hardly believe it, it felt wrong when I had just arrived into this time, an imposter with no knowledge of who was fighting and why.
“I wanted to just be an observer of it all, of the future wars, not participate…”
Sasha was visibly upset. She held a hand over her cheek, like she needed to comfort herself with a caress.
I felt resolute.
“This is threatening our ongoing journey, we knew there would be times we would be forced to interfere to stay on track. We can’t lose orientation…”
Sasha sat back down in the curled beetle shell-like chair, frowned with troubled eyes, and asked the Bubble’s computer a question.
“Computer, how many people do you detect at the Station? Please scan.”
“Six people. Two just outside, and four inside the OS. I would like to add that Zeus is online but has not revealed his presence to those who are in the Station.”
Six souls in the gulf of three thousand years, in a hundred years they would just be names I calculated, not people, in another thousand they would not matter at all. No gravestone remains standing after enough time and names, however deeply etched, always give way to moss and rain and fade to nothing, like flesh falls from bones and turns to dust. Atrocities happen in nature continuously, every day. It is the way of the world. I had to protect time travel, the only time travel project in the history of Mankind.
“Okay…” she said in defeat, as if it hit her, the gravity of our situation. Nothing was ordinary and there was a sense that moving through time meant acts of violence meant so much less.
We gently glided down to the far side of the mountain, the Bubble fully cloaked.
When we were finally on the sand, it was odd, powdery and looked irradiated. We detected mild radiation but not severe enough to retreat. The plant life was like a weed – I didn’t recognise it all, which was strange. Plants would mutate over a thousand years but were usually still recognisable. This plant was an anomaly to me and it was in such abundance. There were no birds or animals I could see at all.
When I looked back at the sky I felt faint for a second, like the Universe missed a beat and I noticed. My eyes seemed to fog and blur momentarily. I physically shook the feeling off, we had a task and had to move. I had a moment of memory loss. I couldn’t remember landing the Bubble at all. This world felt dangerous and unnatural, just for being in it I felt like a true invader. I had to stay focused, I had to keep it together for the both of us, for our future, for THE future.
At a craggy outcrop around the back of the mountain was a second, stealthy way in, a round ventilation portal to a crawl tunnel for emergencies like this, if the main entrance was compromised. I found the disguised hatch in the rock, pulled it up and we slid into the narrow space. We scrambled and dragged ourselves along the claustrophobic tunnel confines and eventually reached the main debriefing room which hummed with electrical energy and computer cooling systems. We found ourselves directly above the room, peering down through a grating in the ceiling. Curiously, I could make out two people sitting in chairs in the silence below. It irritated me as I was hoping to use the room for access to the nearby small arms armoury room.
It was odd. They looked strangely familiar in their posture. A moment later, one of them had an inkling to look directly up yet I was sure he had not heard a noise, it was like he was expecting me.
No. It was impossible…
I felt time close around me like a turning screw, like it was crushing me into a tiny hole where I would be trapped forever.
It was my face staring back at me, apart from the obvious, it looked a little weird – but then I had only seen my face close up in the mirror, an imperfect reflection, the wrong way around. The other me caught my eye immediately but said nothing, like he was in mute awe at my anticipated arrival. He tapped the woman sitting beside him, urgently on the shoulder, and she too looked up, abruptly. Sasha was beside me in the tunnel, trying to understand what she was looking at and she gasped loudly, as she met the gaze of her own deep, dark eyes, now staring back.
Zeus spoke, the mediator to the impossible.
“It’s alright. You can come down from there.” His programmed tone was calm, non-threatening, as if this was the conclusion to an innocent game.
I looked with confusion at Sasha and she shook her head in dread, but I decided that we had no choice – we needed to find out more. Future scenarios were always weird and staggering, so we needed information, drip by drip until our knowledge was full. I elbowed the flimsy grating sharply, so it clattered to the ground next to the two versions of us, and I uncurled into the room to drop to the floor. Sasha reluctantly followed my lead with an ungainly fall into the room.
“How is this happening?” I pleaded.
Zeus explained. That was his only real job in all this time, to explain the unexplainable.
“A science has been created in this era, which lead to a remarkable technology. They turned on a machine thirty years ago – the meaning of its name was, Mirror Machine. It is a miraculous device, something so astonishing it’s hard for me to process its workings. When activated, the machine can locate human beings in a vicinity nearby and create perfect organic copies of them, to a molecular level. This is almost impossible to imagine from our time – but they did it.
“The population was dying, infertile and in decline, a situation amplified from the radioactive fallout of war, so with the dwindling numbers, scientists found a way to instantly replicate people to boost the population. This is not cloning, not growing flesh from cells, but finding a host and then flickering perfect copies into existence, doubling the matter in people and projecting it to a position close by. When it happens, it creates a localised fog, and out of it emerges these ‘mirror people’, as they call them, even clothed in the same clothes. Every person in this time has had a doppelganger, a copy of themselves in every way, even in memory. It’s not like twins, it’s, more exact a duplicate. It has been, of course, a complete disaster, it appears there is no room for so many perfect copies, even with a dying population, so they turned to war again. There are very few people left, a few thousand maybe. There is also only one thing to eat – one vegetation that proliferates, it feeds off the radiation from the war. This is a challenging time to live within. We will have our work cut out.”
I was having difficulty digesting this briefing, staring at my own face, looking wary and pensive, only a few feet away.
“So – this is my copy?” I said, pointing accusingly at the other me.
Zeus was quiet, as if processing how to approach the question.
“It’s the other way around. You are the copy…”
“No. That’s not right, we came from orbit in the Bubble. We scanned the OS for humans. We were inside the Bubble so that makes us real. You can’t convince me otherwise!”
I was breathing faster as I spoke.
“No, you didn’t, you just recall that memory from the original you, you were created just outside the mountain. You popped into existence with a perfect copy of Sasha by your side. It is my fault and I apologise. I connected remotely to the Mirror Machine, and I accidentally turned it on again when I was collecting data for future orientation… All six travellers were copied and materialised at the mountain’s edge and also inside the OS, when the originals were in the process of returning to Earth. It appears that when you broke the cloud layer, the machine found you and copied you – specifically you were both brought into existence just outside the mountain. I communicated covertly with the original travellers, to position themselves to greet each copied couple. This is a lot for you to take in, I know…”
That’s when I noticed the other me was holding a stubby vaporiser gun from the OS armoury.
I unclipped my helmet and let it fall to my feet. Sasha did too, her eyes connecting with mine.
“…I am sorry about what I am about to do…” said the other me, quivering and uncertain.
Before he could muster the will to pull the trigger and simplify the problem, I dove into him and knocked the vaporiser from his gloved hand. My counterpart’s Sasha scooped it up almost immediately and to my horror, as I fought myself on the floor, she stood straight in a posture I recognised as determination, and she zapped my Sasha with a deathly ray of blue light. My dearest partner, the love of my life, she exploded into a cloud of plasma and ashes, without even the time to scream. She was gone. She popped out of existence as abruptly as she had flickered into it.
My sense of internal agony escalated instantly into a fierce rage and I struck the other me firmly in the throat. He gurgled as his windpipe collapsed and he held up his hands around his throat as if to find a way into his neck to put the airpipe back together. It was clear there was nothing he could do but choke and splutter and roll about the floor like a stunned animal. As the colour drained from his face I jumped back to my feet and I watched ‘myself’ lose the fight for air. His legs were shaking almost comically, the last of his energy shuddering through him.
The other Sasha was shaking hard at the prospect of what she had done, and what I had done. I took that valuable second of her paralysing shock to disarm her and step away with the gun in my grip.
“Don’t kill me… please,” she begged, crying. She had never signed up to kill. It was the last thing she wanted in this adventure.
It was the strangest of nightmares to endure. The original version of me and my copied Sasha were both dead. It was a mess of time and space.
Zeus broke the pause of silence and intervened.
“I have a suggestion. You realise, there are now two of you, not four. You can continue your mission – that is now viable. You are both complete versions of yourselves. Take a moment to think about that, and the future. It is time to reconcile and be practical. Do you want to witness the next thousand years?”
“… I am me…” I said, almost pathetically, as if I didn’t really accept it.
“Me too…” she said as she held her hands up high in surrender.
Beyond the door, I heard other vaporisers discharging, as the remaining copies were dealt with so proficiently. The time travellers had gambled no one would want to stay on this Earth and be left behind. They knew themselves too well.
“You want to keep this a secret?” I asked. A genuine question.
I was adapting already, to the prospect of having a second chance, with Sasha by my side as before. It seemed I was becoming more used to the impossible with every new era, as were we all. Travel through time gave you a tough hide, a workmanlike ethic to make the most of a dealt hand.
She nodded, wiping the tears away, seeing hope blossom in my words.
“I can do that. Yes. I know you are a perfect copy, so that’s who you are. I saw what loneliness did to Kim… I want to carry on. I want to carry on with my partner. I can’t travel to the future alone. I just can’t.”
Zeus was equally as disturbingly practical, its voice conciliatory in tone, like nothing of great consequence had just occurred.
“Put the vaporiser away. I will inform the others that you are the original traveller. For all intents and purposes, you really are.”
I listened to the footfalls of the others approaching our room.
I lowered the gun and took the deepest breath. This would take some getting used to, I had been forged into existence moments ago, yet I had a whole lifetime of experience in me, spanning Millennia. I guessed this was just another significant moment in future orientation. The journey would continue, and I was a time traveller.