;

Iteration, Interruption

Robert’s team stood back, allowing him to attach and configure the final component by himself, completing with his own hands the work he had started years ago in his own mind. The entire lab seemed to be holding its breath in that long moment, as the last piece was finally fit into place on the first potentially functional Aperture. They all knew the work wasn’t near to being complete, and that the device was months from being tested, but by all accounts this moment still represented a huge milestone for the future of humanity. If Robert’s predictions and calculations were correct -and everyone present had shown independently that they were- this device would be able to generate and maintain a stable wormhole between itself and any similarly configured device.

Robert had named the device an Aperture because it created an opening in the fabric of space itself, and as soon as its duplicate was completed and launched into orbit Robert was sure he would be opening the door to a new world of possibilities for humanity. With as little as a single Aperture in a geostationary orbit paired with one on the Earth, the cost of moving a kilogram of anything into space would drop from several tens of thousands of dollars down to practically nothing. Getting a network of dozens of Aperture-linked transportation-hub satellites in operation after the first was completed would be as simple as passing the parts through at ground level and assembling and positioning them in orbit.

As Robert made the final mechanical calibrations of the first Aperture ever built, his mind was dreaming of the day -the months couldn’t pass fast enough- when he would be able to step through this Aperture and finally be in outer space. He’d been dreaming of it since childhood, and even as he felt a strange tingling sensation raising the hairs on his arms, Robert didn’t stop dreaming of that rapidly approaching future day. Robert stepped back to take in the full magnificence of his creation, a ring of unique alloys and custom electronics three meters in diameter, standing upright before him. The version 1 Aperture was less than half the size of the fictional wormhole gates which had spawned hundreds of episodes of fantasy adventure television, and for good reason – at least one of them had to fit within the tiny cargo compartment of the only commercial rockets still flying. Still, it was large enough to be awe-inspiring, and Robert and his team all stood back, staring up at it without noticing its lights flashing out in patterns they shouldn’t have been.

Perhaps if the Aperture were attached to a warning klaxon, or had a secondary ring which rotated noisily to indicate a connection was being made, Robert and his team might have expected what came next. Instead, as what appeared to be a small soap bubble began to grow from nothing in the center of the Aperture, they each looked back and forth from it to the others around them as if to say, “Did you do that?” The strange ‘bubble’ expanded rapidly into a sphere nearly three meters across and then, as its edge reached the inner edge of the Aperture, seemed to collapse into a two-dimensional plane. “Like a plane of soapy water stretched across the ring of a bubble wand,” Robert thought, though as soon as it had collapsed it lost any resemblance to a soap bubble.

Instead of continuing to distort and refract light from within the lab, like a bubble, the Aperture now seemed to have become a window to another location. Robert’s brow furrowed as he took in the scene visible through the Aperture, mumbling, “…or like a dirty mirror.” He could see himself, through the Aperture, standing in front of a group of people surrounded by scientific equipment and parts he recognized as Aperture components, but it wasn’t quite right. The components were not the experimental, relatively-low-budget ones he had created; they were well-engineered and looked like commercially finished products. Robert’s seeming reflection didn’t look right, either, and not merely because it was walking right toward him while he stood still. Robert didn’t know what to do, so he just watched silently as his apparent double stepped up and out of the image in the Aperture, jumping down to the floor of the lab without any signs of youth or grace, then crossed the floor to stand before him.

“I know this must come as quite a surprise to you, possibly much more than it did me at first, so I’ll try to explain it to you the way you explained it to me, years ago.” Robert heard a version of his own voice emanating from a version of his own face, speaking as though in riddle. He nodded, but his apparent duplicate didn’t seem to be waiting for a response. “First, because it was always more interesting to us than war or politics, the physics: The Aperture I designed, err… that you designed, when I was you… umm… well, anyway, our Aperture technology is, as you know, a way of creating a stable wormhole through spacetime between two points. Let me say first that it works, and stupendously! Dreams more wild than we ever dared to dream have been made real because of this little invention of ours.” As he spoke, he gestured behind him to the open Aperture. “Now, with a few simple modifications to our original design, it can mathematically target another Aperture not just across space, but also across time. The Aperture you keep glancing past me to look through is one such connection, opening up on your own future, nearly twenty-eight years hence.”

“My future.” Robert’s eyes continued their rapid dance back and forth between the open Aperture and the middle-aged figure standing before him, trying to believe what he was seeing. The man did certainly look like an older version of himself, and spoke with his own voice, and the Aperture did appear to be standing, impossibly, open, but Robert wasn’t convinced. “Why should I believe you?”

“Well,” continued Robert’s aged duplicate, “if the evidence of your Aperture opening before a second Aperture could be completed for it to pair with is insufficient, how about the evidence you once used to convince me?”

“You’re speaking in riddles. I’ve never met you.”

“But a version of you, an older version of myself, once visited me from my own future, and had to convince me he spoke the truth, too.”

“How did I… I mean, how did he do it?”

The older man stepped closer, spoke softer, “Do you remember when we were younger, and we dreamed of being able to travel through time?” Robert nodded. “Do you remember what we always wished we could go back in time and change?” Again, he nodded. “Well, since the earliest time we’ll ever be able to travel backward to is a moment ago, since there was never an Aperture to be on the receiving end until you completed the first, we can never go back and…” …and the older man leaned in and whispered something into the ear of the younger, so no one else would hear.

After the visitor from the future had returned to standing with an expectant look on his face, Robert was silent for a long while. There was a faraway, if somewhat sad, look about him. Then, as his head began slowly to nod, his countenance gradually altered to one of acceptance. “Well, that’s that, then. You’re me, from the future. What can we do for you?”

The older gentleman looked backward, over his shoulder, and gave a firm nod to the men waiting on the other side of the Aperture. They sprang into motion, and he turned back around to address Robert and his entire team. “First, for convenience, how about everyone calls you Robert and everyone calls me Dr. Weyth? It’ll be easier for those guys,” and he gestured back to the Aperture, “and if I’m remembering correctly you’re all already on a first name basis around here, right?”

Everyone nodded, still trying to cope with everything that was happening. Their attention was distracted momentarily by a loud metal clanging, as several men from the future dropped the end of a huge ramp onto the floor of the lab. It had obviously been designed specifically to fit a version 1 Aperture, and seeing something they’d imagined but not yet constructed come crashing into the room made accepting such strange events a bit easier on Robert and his team.

“Good,” Dr. Weyth continued, “now we’re going to be bringing quite a bit of equipment through the Aperture, so we’re going to need some room. Rhonda, Mitch, and Lise, move the unfinished version 1 Aperture to Lab B for now.” They leapt into motion as though Robert had given the instruction. When a second ramp was loudly lowered to the ground from the other side of the Aperture, none of Robert’s remaining team even blinked. “Mike, Cliff, and Jerry, find Dr. Kurtz. You’ll be assisting him with setup of the version 4 Aperture we’re bringing through in parts.” The three of them paused momentarily, looking back and forth to each other and then to Robert. He shrugged, then motioned them toward the open Aperture with a head motion. They went, and Dr. Weyth continued, “the rest of you, just help get the equipment unloaded as quickly as possible. I’ll be going over things with Robert, if you have any questions for either of us.” The rest of the team eagerly went to work, practically running up the ramp and into the future.

“I’m sure you have plenty of questions, Robert. Ask me anything you like.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin. What… What happened?”

“Quite a lot, actually. The Aperture has been a monumental success. Seeing the old lab like this, the old team, it really brings me back.” The two men were standing still amidst a flurry of activity as dozens of people flowed back and forth through the Aperture, bringing equipment back from the future. “Of course, it’ll all be different, now. Just talking to you has put us on a different path than we’ve ever been on before, and the technologies we’re bringing…” Dr. Weyth shook his head gently, “I hope it will be enough.”

“Enough for what? What happened? Or… what will have happened, that you hope won’t happen, now?”

“Best to begin at the beginning, I suppose.” Dr. Weyth’s eyes had a faraway look as he tried to remember, but then something caught his eye. “I wouldn’t mind having something to keep my hands busy, though. Would you mind if I worked on that old version 1 while we talk?” He pointed at the unfinished Aperture being carefully moved through a huge rolling door to Lab B. “For old time’s sake?”

“Sure. You certainly know more about it than we do by now, I suppose.” They followed the unfinished Aperture through the door and away from the hustle and bustle around the open one.

“Perhaps. It changed the course of humanity, you know.” Robert nodded, vindicated in hearing his dreams had come true. “After the first tests proved it worked and was safe, it was years before we caught up with demand for the Apertures’ use. Transportation hubs were built all over the world, and within five years there were three dozen orbital Aperture interchanges, with millions of people near-instantly transported to their destinations across the world by them. Hundreds of thousands of people were working in space full time. We gladly ferried our competitors to orbit to build space elevators, because once humanity had a taste of space we were glad for the help at keeping up with demand.”

Robert and Dr. Weyth assisted Rhonda, Mitch and Lise getting the Aperture set up where they’d be able to work on it, then allowed the other three to go see the future for themselves. Dr. Weyth shut the huge door between the labs, giving them some quiet and some privacy for their discussion.

“Once we’d managed to get enough version 1 Apertures in place to handle traffic to and from Earth’s orbit, about five years from now, we began working on improvements. We had all the funding we needed, plus plenty of data and ideas for potential uses we wanted the version 2 Apertures to fulfill. It took us another five years before I was satisfied enough to present it to the world, and in that time mankind had expanded even more.” With Robert’s help, Dr. Weyth got to work on a device he’d just admitted he’d made obsolete ten years hence. “There was a small colony on the moon, with a single pair of Apertures linking it to a ship orbiting the moon. Man had just set foot on Mars for the first time a few months prior to my announcement, but to the surprise of the world, I revealed that the Aperture the Mars crew had carried with them wasn’t like the ones they’d seen before. On the ten year anniversary of the first test of the version 1, I stepped from Earth to Mars in front of the world. That may have been the second best day of my life.”

“You built an Aperture that could open a wormhole spanning millions of miles? What will its power requirements be? How did you find an alloy strong enough to withstand the forces of pulling it open? My figures show this one couldn’t reach more than about thirty thousand miles; what’s the limit on the version 2?”

“Perhaps too far, if you ask me. The first version 2 Apertures off the line could reach about 5AU. Within three years, the new Apertures had been carried out to Jupiter and Venus, with huge interchanges being installed at every stable place we could find. Every Langrangian Point from Venus to Jupiter, plus half a dozen points in the asteroid belt, became launching points for humanity’s expansion throughout the solar system. Within another few years, hundreds of colonies were being set up throughout the system. Visiting another planet was easier and cheaper twenty years from now than flying overseas is today. We thought our place in the universe was finally becoming secure, because even a huge asteroid hitting Earth couldn’t wipe humanity out anymore. We thought we were everywhere.”

“Sounds amazing.” Work on the Aperture was progressing faster than it had by Robert’s own hand; Dr. Weyth had clearly done this sort of work hundreds or thousands of times before. Robert mostly stood aside, watching, and listening.

“Upgrades and changes to the version 2 Apertures were less dramatic. Point updates, if you will. Increasing expansion of humanity called for larger Apertures. Apertures capable of moving a spaceship or space station from one end of the system to another. Up to the release of version 2, all Apertures were assumed to be used only in environments with an atmosphere. In fact, using Apertures to carry an atmosphere to a new space station was pretty exciting, at first – the flattenning of the opening is accompanied by a sudden wind as the pressure between the Earth’s atmosphere and the empty station is equalized for the first time. With version 2.1, Apertures were able to detect whether they were in an atmosphere, and if not, they would only open to other Apertures that were not.”

“What about the lag of light speed, when connecting across such distances? Waiting ten minutes, each way, for connection protocols before the Aperture can open seems inconvenient.”

“Oh, that was pretty easy. Every version 2 Aperture has a sealed compartment with a very tiny Aperture contained within it. A microscopic wormhole is formed between two Apertures and they’re able to communicate with effectively zero lag before they attempt to open a full-size Aperture. This also allowed for variations in size. Huge, space-based Apertures could be built to move ships, without worrying about their connecting to a smaller Aperture the ship wouldn’t be able to fit through.”

“What a novel idea. The power requirements must have been outrageous, though.”

“I made use of the power advancements of other men; I don’t know how they came up with them any more than they could have built this before you or I did. Powering the Apertures was already trivial, by then. Aiming them across vast distances and accounting for the complex curvatures of interplanetary space were more than enough of a challenge for me.”

“You did it, though. It’s amazing.”

“It hasn’t ended well, though. Not yet. Our arrogant expansion throughout the solar system continued. Men and robots began mining the vast riches of the Kuyper Belt, and about twenty years from now, one of them made first contact. A giant semi-autonomous mining ship happened upon an alien artifact, an interstellar probe. Thinking it simply to be a metal-rich asteroid, it attempted to destroy the probe to extract its raw materials. The probe was able to send out a signal before it self-destructed, taking the mining ship with it.”

“It self-destructed? Was it meant to be a weapon?”

“It was meant to keep unknown and primitive species from tampering with it. To keep us from getting technology advanced beyond our capabilities. At least, that’s what they told us, when they showed up a few weeks later.”

“They?”

“The sgruƙ. The aliens who had created the probe, and who later destroyed the Earth.”

“The Skrook?”

“No, the sgruƙ or, more formally, sgruƙ p’tau.”

“It sounds a little like you’re swallowing part of your tongue.”

“Listen carefully. It’s as though there were an ‘s’ at the beginning of the word ‘grew’, except with a postalveolar trill on the ‘r’ and ending with the voiceless velar implosive, which is a bit like the opposite of a hard ‘k’.”

“The opposite of ‘k’?”

“Listen. sgruƙ. sgruƙ.” Dr. Weyth tried carefully enunciating the sounds, over and over. “The final sound requires an intake of breath, almost like a gasp. sgruƙ. Do you hear it?”

Robert kept trying to recreate the odd sounds until he finally managed to utter a sound close to Dr. Weyth’s pronunciation, and found himself patted on the back in congratulations.

“Good job! You’re a far stretch from being able to hold a conversation in even simplified gruƙtk, but that’s an excellent effort.”

“Thanks, I guess…”

“So, as I was saying,” continued Dr. Weyth, his hands likewise continuing the construction of the Aperture, “the first representatives of sgruƙ p’tau appeared in the Solar system just a few weeks after their probe was destroyed. They came peacefully, sharing information about themselves and eager to learn about us. They even shared some technologies that seemed pretty amazing at the time, including basic artificial gravity and inertial dampening.”

“Sounds pretty good.”

“It was. Then they said they needed to study us, our culture and our technology, before we could apply to become part of sgruƙ p’tau. Like joining the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, if the sgruƙ were the humans and we were the unknown aliens. Full members are supposed to gain full access to their technologies, culture, and worlds spanning thousands of light years. They sent about a dozen envoys to the Solar system to learn about us, and said they expected the process to take about five Earth years.”

“That sounds pretty straightforward. What went wrong?”

“On the fifth anniversary of first contact between humanity and sgruƙ p’tau, we arranged a celebratory ceremony at the United Nations in New York. All the sgruƙ tauƥ were on the same shuttle, descending over crowds welcoming them, when–“

“Wait,” Robert interrupted, “did I mishear you? I thought they were called sgruk p’tau.”

“Oh, right. The difference between sgruƙ p’tau and sgruƙ tauƥ is like the difference between saying Earth Empire and saying Earthling. sgruƙ p’tau refers corporately to their entire formally structured society, while sgruƙ tauƥ is more informal and refers to them individually.”

“I think I get it, though I’m not sure I could pronounce it yet.”

“Well, the envoys were all descending toward the United Nations building and the waiting crowds below, when some human terrorists who didn’t want us to join the sgruƙ p’tau shot them down. All the sgruƙ tauƥ onboard were killed, and hundreds of humans in the crowd were injured or killed in the rain of exploding debris. sgruƙ p’tau declared war on us the next day, and it was only a few more days before their warships began destroying humanity’s outlying colonies in the Kuyper Belt.”

“Because of a few bad apples?”

“Because humanity is not civilized enough to be allowed to endanger the rest of the galaxy. Now, the next part I didn’t see for myself, so you’ll just have to take your own word for it.”

“…because a future version of us came back in time to tell you about it?”

“Right. But we’re not there, yet. Apparently, the first time, it didn’t take long for the sgruƙ p’tau to wipe humanity out and destroy the Earth. Perhaps only a matter of weeks. I had already considered that Apertures might be able to be used for travel through time, but all the science fiction and even the few mathematically-sound scientific theories we’ve ever read have painted the dangers of time travel and paradox as something we wouldn’t want to mess with.” Robert nodded assent. “So apparently, the first of you to use the Aperture this way, trying to minimize your impact, just sent back information.”

“That wouldn’t really prevent paradox. Any interaction would create a change in the timeline.”

“We’re pretty sure that time travel creates branching alternate timelines, and that, yes, even just sending back the times and locations where attacks would occur was more than enough to ensure that things changed significantly. Apparently the second time humanity was destroyed by sgruƙ p’tau, it took months instead of weeks, because colonies were evacuated in time, and a lot of humanity got far from Earth before it was turned to rubble.”

“They literally turned the Earth to rubble? When you said they destroyed the Earth I didn’t think you’d meant it literally. I thought you meant they made it uninhabitable, or nuked it. How can you destroy an entire planet?”

“That’s a part of their technology they determined we weren’t civilized enough to understand, Robert. That’s something they didn’t trust us to know. We couldn’t even be trusted not to murder their peaceful, loving ambassadors, and you think they would have told us how to destroy entire worlds?”

“No, I…” Robert was taken off guard by Dr. Weyth’s sudden outburst of emotion.

“You weren’t there. You didn’t see the senseless destruction. The death…”

“I thought you weren’t there, either. Which future was told to you, and which one did you live through?”

“Oh, uhh… You’re right. I lived through the third invasion. In the second invasion, you had time to develop some basic defenses. It’s how you were able to stretch weeks into months; you figured out how to generate a simple energy barrier to absorb and deflect the sgruƙ energy weapons. Most of the surviving ships were glad to give up the artificial gravity they’d only briefly possessed to a modification that gave them a fighting chance.”

“You turned artificial gravity into energy shields? How are those two things even related?”

“Not me, a future version of us. I can explain the technology later, it’s pretty straightforward. Easy enough that any competent crew could do the modification in a few hours. Then someone else thought of retrofitting some Apertures with the technology, and with a little hardware upgrade and a quick software patch, version 3 Apertures helped us put up quite a fight toward the second end. Version 3 Apertures could connect to any other Aperture and use shields to make it safe, holding in atmosphere or preventing size problems by limiting the field of travel when connecting between non-matched Apertures. The military weaponized some of them, using the conservation of momentum to propel huge asteroids and even a couple dwarf planets at sgruƙ warships with inescapable velocities.”

“Sounds like a clever tactic.”

“It was, but it wasn’t enough. As I said, it only took a few months before there were only a few traces of humanity left. The best and the brightest came back in time to the first moments after the first sgruƙ attacks, bringing their insights and technological advances with them. Working with a future version of myself by my side, we started by rolling out the version 3 Aperture technology and the energy shields to all human outposts throughout the Solar system, and then went on to try to do better. The military came up with more and more ideas for how to try to defend against the might of sgruƙ p’tau, and how to use Apertures offensively as well as defensively. Well-cloaked Apertures connected to another part of space are effectively undetectable; they just look like more of the same star-field, until a weapon on the other end comes swinging into view. I watched quite a few such ambushes from the safe side of the open Aperture, over the last few years.”

“Years? How long were you able to keep up the fight the third time?”

“Roughly three years. About twenty-five times longer than the first invasion, but we still lost, in the end. Earth was destroyed again, and we’ve had to resort to time travel to try to survive. Which brings us back to now, I suppose. Traveling back to the earliest possible time to give humanity the best possible chance of survival against sgruƙ p’tau.”

“Why not just go back to before the terrorist attack to prevent the war from starting?”

“We have reason to believe that, in order to have any success in convincing the right people to make the right preparations in time, if we’re going to make a temporal incursion prior to the first attacks of the sgruƙ, we need to go back to a time prior to first contact. Not to mention that after seeing the destruction of Earth a couple of times, you became pretty convinced and very vocal that there was nothing we could do and humanity could not be saved from destruction at the hands of the sgruƙ.” Dr. Weyth was nearly finished assembling the Aperture, but set down the final component and changed the subject suddenly. “Say, you haven’t ever been through an open Aperture, have you? Would you like to see the future?”

Robert decided to allow the change of subject, set down his own tools, and followed Dr. Weyth back to Lab A. He was surprised to see relatively little activity there, and not much of the new equipment he’d seen stacked up and waiting to come through the Aperture. “Where is everybody? And what about all that new equipment?”

“Didn’t I say? They have to set it up outside. The ship would never fit inside the lab, Robert.”

“You’re bringing an entire spaceship back from the future?”

“Our last surviving and most advanced warship to date. I like to call it the Alamo, but don’t say that in front of the others, they’re superstitious. Redundant to the ship, those computers,” and Dr. Weyth pointed at several large devices Robert wouldn’t have guessed initially were computers, “were the first thing we brought through, in case of trouble. They contain all the knowledge of humanity, through the next twenty-eight years, including everything we know about sgruƙ p’tau, how to fight them, and how to defend humanity against them. Not to mention some exciting advances in material science, physics, computing, manufacturing, medicine, and so on.” Dr. Weyth led Robert up the ramp, pausing just outside the open Aperture. “After you, Robert.”

Robert stepped through the Aperture he had designed and built and into a future he was now a part of trying to destroy. As he slowly walked down the matching ramp on the other side, Robert looked amazedly around the inside of the first space vessel he had ever been in, his eyes wide and his jaw agape. He looked back to the Aperture, seeing his lab through it, and more ship beyond it. “Is that a version 3? It looks… different.”

“Yes, version 3. We only had time and resources to build two version 4 Apertures, so we’re still using the version 3 Apertures for everything else, including time travel.”

“I thought you didn’t try going to other times.”

“We didn’t try going to other times in our past,” explained Dr. Weyth. “We did try going to our own future.” He lowered and shook his head in disappointment.

“What did you find?”

“Nothing. No matter where and when we attempted to connect to, we never found human life. There aren’t many functional Apertures left, in this now, and they don’t remain functional for long. This is truly a dead end for humanity, Robert. The end of us. Come and see.” Dr. Weyth led Robert through a doorway and down a corridor to another part of the ship, saying, “See what we got, again and again, for being unable to accept what the sgruƙ had to offer us. Our punishment for senselessly murdering their peaceful emissaries.”

The corridor opened up into an expansive room surrounded by what appeared to be panoramic windows, revealing the view beyond the ship’s walls. The first thing that caught Robert’s attention was the huge Aperture hanging in space before the ship, sunlight glinting off its carefully machined exterior. The background, a dense asteroid field, was similar to every other one he’d seen portrayed in fiction since his childhood and at first he thought nothing of it.

Then Dr. Weyth spoke again, after letting Robert take in the view for a few silent minutes, “that’s all that remains of the Earth. Rubble. Wreckage. Deserved destruction.”

“This…” Robert was taken aback, suddenly seeing the asteroid field in a new light, “This asteroid field used to be …Earth?” Robert staggered toward the edge of the room, as though to get a closer look at the world he’d been standing on mere moments ago. “How did they…?”

“I tried to tell you.”

“The sgruƙ must be pretty evil, to do something like this. To commit genocide, and to destroy our homeworld, over a single error in judgement made by a few rogue citizens.” Robert could already feel himself turning against the sgruƙ, seeing them as his unforgivable enemy after seeing the remains of Earth. He was sure the image before him would stay with him all his days. “What sort of monsters are they? Did you ever get to meet them, yourself?”

Dr. Weyth’s reaction was like a flare bursting suddenly to heat and light, “They aren’t the evil ones! We are. We’re the monsters. The murderers. The terrorists. Humanity deserved this, after what they did to her! This was no error in judgement; sgruƙ p’tau judged fairly that humanity needed to be punished, and justice was carried out. This,” he gestured all around, to the chunks of rock and ice surrounding the ship, “is justice.”

“How can you say that? How is it just to murder billions of people as punishment for the deaths of only a few? There may be a few humans who deserve punishment, but this?” Robert thought he saw the remnants of the moon, equally pulverized, in a lighter colored debris field a short distance away, and shook his head at the thought. “This is madness.”

“It was madness that took her from me,” replied Dr. Weyth, his energy level dropping quickly, the words turning to whispers in his mouth, “and cold, calculating reason that repaid mankind for that murder.” Dr. Weyth turned away from the view, closed his eyes, and seemed to sink into himself.

“Who was she?” Robert was beginning to catch on.

“z’raɠta. She was one of the sgruƙ tauƥ sent to research us. She was assigned to my facility, to study the Aperture technology. There’s nothing like it in sgruƙ p’tau; one of the only things we were doing that they didn’t already understand better than we did.”

“And you were just going to give it to them?”

Dr. Weyth looked up, turning to face Robert again. “It would be easy to say that what they offered in return was worth a lot more to us than even the Apertures had been in the decades we’d been using them but, in reality, they didn’t seem interested in the technology.” He rolled his eyes, “Even z’raɠta wasn’t happy to be assigned to study the Apertures, at first. She didn’t understand their capabilities, their potential. We worked side by side on some minor upgrades, some calculations for interstellar Apertures, and over time z’raɠta saw first-hand what you’d invented all those years ago.”

“Less than an hour ago, really. How could they overlook the technology that had finally allowed humanity to reach out, beyond Earth for the first time?”

“First, since you’re on this side of the Aperture, it was twenty-eight years ago that you built the first one. Second, of course, was that it didn’t look that important, from their point of view.” Dr. Weyth seemed caught up in the conversation again, neither cursing humanity nor shaking with grief, but gesticulating dramatically as he spoke. “We still had to use rockets to get the Apertures in place, of course, so we hadn’t been farther than rockets could carry us. We built space elevators on every planet with major colonization, to work alongside Apertures and increase capacity. These seemed to be all the sgruƙ needed to see to make their judgement about our technological level of transportation, and the existence of the Apertures was just an oddity to them.”

“I assume they’ve had some form of rapid interstellar travel for long enough that they can’t recall what their own first steps out into their system were like. If space elevators and rockets were the only way off the planet, it would take most of a century to do what you say happened in under twenty years.”

“I agree that they weren’t seeing the whole picture with clarity, but as I said, z’raɠta came to understand us quite well. Not only the Aperture’s effect on humanity, but so much more about us…” Dr. Weyth reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, round device shaped like a locket. As he looked at it, the first smile Robert had seen there began to form on Dr. Weyth’s face, sparkling in his eyes. “The sgruƙ tauƥ are a coldly logical species, Robert. Like Vulcans or … even robots, in fiction, they’re almost comically calculating. When we made first contact, and the sgruƙ began learning our language, they literally had no way of understanding all the words we use for our emotions, or even the word emotion itself.”

“That’s fairly foreign. I can guess why there might be some xenophobia in response.”

“Their appearance caused more xenophobia than their inability to understand emotions, I assure you.” Dr. Weyth turned the object in his hand so that Robert could see the holographic representation of z’raɠta it projected. Robert couldn’t keep his eyes from suddenly going wide, or his hand from swooping up to cover his startled gasp. “Star Trek got it wrong. There’s life out there, but it isn’t humans with lumpy foreheads or green skin. Within days, every piece of science fiction that depicted extra-terrestrial life suddenly seemed quaint, if not laughable.”

“I can see that.”

“Of course, it turned out that, while their appearance wasn’t about to become more human, their hearts were at least capable of it. I don’t know whether it was the years of immersion in our culture or something specific about the two of us that led to it, but z’raɠta began having feelings for me. I think she fell in love with my mind, first, but it wasn’t long before she was learning to laugh at my jokes, too. I was falling for her at the same time. It had taken a while to get beyond the shock of z’raɠta’s outward appearance, and longer to come to terms with her initial dismissal of the Aperture technology, but eventually I began to warm to her.”

Robert was still staring, wide-eyed, at the image of z’raɠta Dr. Weyth held in his hand, trying to imagine feelings of attraction to …it. Dr. Weyth didn’t seem to notice the expression of disgust on Robert’s face, and continued.

“Things happened pretty quickly, after that, and soon we both admitted we were in love. As you can imagine, humans and sgruƙ aren’t sexually compatible in any traditional sense. We could never have had children, since sgruƙ don’t have anything more than vaguely like DNA, and the very idea of sexual pairing was another they hadn’t even conceived of prior to meeting humanity. Without getting into much detail… well, suffice it to say that we found plenty of physical pleasure in each other’s company.” Robert’s face somehow managed to display even more disgust at the thought. “We were happier together than I could remember being, and z’raɠta was eager to share both her newfound feelings in general, and her specific feelings for me, with the other sgruƙ tauƥ when she saw them all at the ceremony. I was there, in the crowd that day. I saw…” Dr. Weyth’s voice cracked, “I watched her shuttle go to pieces in the sky above us.” Tears were coming from his eyes. “I saw smoke and fire, metal and flesh, raining down. Pouring down. Everything…” He pulled the device in his hand back close to him, looked hard at the image of his lost love, and his voice was hoarse, just above a whisper, “they murdered her. They took her from me. z’raɠta, my love. z’raɠta, my only one.” He sniffled. “They killed her, and they deserve what they got.”

“If you really believe that, why would you have gone back in time, again and again, trying to save humanity? Why not just go back in time and save… her?” Robert didn’t want to mispronounce the alien name.

“I haven’t been trying to save humanity.” Dr. Weyth’s eyes broke from the image in his hand and locked with Robert’s again. “I’ve been punishing them. They didn’t deserve the quick death they got the first time, and I wasn’t satisfied seeing their pain stretched out to mere months, either. Watching humanity get ground down to nothing, slowly losing hope and losing lives over three long years, I almost feel like they’ve been punished enough.”

“So this time you’re really going to try to save us?”

“No.” Dr. Weyth seemed suddenly to have been reminded of a pressing deadline, and marched rapidly back to the open Aperture in the belly of the ship. Robert ran along after him.

“What do you mean, no?”

“I don’t doubt that with this much time and this advanced a technological head start, humanity will have an excellent chance of surviving anything the sgruƙ can throw at them.” He was up, over the ramp, and back into the past, heading quickly back to Lab B. “Frankly, I don’t care about your future, Robert. I only care about my past.”

“What are you going to do, Dr. Weyth?” Robert was chasing after him, worried that he didn’t see any of the military personnel from the future around to alert to the potential danger.

“I can’t let them take this away from me, Robert.” Dr. Weyth’s hands were moving with renewed vigor, putting the finishing touches on the second version 1 Aperture. Robert didn’t know whether to to try stop him, and just watched and listened and hoped he would have time to come up with a plan. “I have to open another Aperture to that future, before it’s closed forever. Before they bring the ship back.”

“I don’t understand. What happens when they bring the ship back?”

“Well, if they haven’t closed the first Aperture before bringing the ship through, it’ll be closed when one Aperture passes through the other. Temporal paradox doesn’t seem to be a problem, but there do seem to be some limits on breaking physical laws, and if an open Aperture tries to pass the event horizon of another open Aperture, it gets closed.”

“So?” Robert easily grasped the idea, but didn’t see why it would be a problem.

“So I don’t want to lose the punishment of humanity I fought so hard to get right. I don’t want z’raɠta’s death to be forgotten, literally erased from existence by changing the timeline, and I can’t let us go unpunished.” Dr. Weyth had put the final component into place and was making the last adjustments to calibrate the second Aperture. “Even if everything they’re doing out there works, and humanity learns to defend itself, or figures out how to be civilized enough to avoid a war with sgruƙ p’tau altogether, I want to hold on to this.”

Robert didn’t think there would be any harm in what Dr. Weyth was planning, and made no move to stop him or to get help. “I guess it’ll be alright, as long as no one finds out about what you’ve been doing, Dr. Weyth.”

Dr. Weyth nodded, “It’s done. Now we just have to go back to the future and signal the Aperture I set up to–” He was interrupted by the appearance of a small bubble growing from the center of the newly-completed Aperture. “But,” he stammered, “but I haven’t triggered it yet…” Dr. Weyth stepped back, out of the way of the expanding, spherical event horizon as it enlarged to the full diameter of the Aperture. When it collapsed into the standard disc of an open Aperture and Dr. Weyth got a look at what had connected to the second Aperture ever built, he gasped, he stumbled backward, and he nearly fainted.

Robert just stared, as he had stared at the holographic image of z’raɠta earlier, seeing yet another thing he wouldn’t have been able to imagine only a few short hours earlier. A sheet of what appeared to be liquid metal slid out from the bottom of the open Aperture, reaching down to the ground and forming a ramp. There were only two figures visible on the other side this time, and they stepped into their past and walked right up to Dr. Weyth.

z’raɠta reached out to Dr. Weyth in a way that certainly could not be described as involving arms or tentacles or anything else Robert had words for, embracing him. He collapsed against her and wept hard upon what Robert knew wasn’t a shoulder. Robert’s mind reeled at the sight of her, and of yet another copy of himself from yet another future. The second future version of Robert handed a small black box no bigger than a billiard ball to Dr. Weyth as his sobbing continued. Then this new figure from the future turned and approached Robert, saying, “Robert, quickly, come with me,” and continuing past him toward Lab A.

Robert followed, glad to have an excuse to peel his eyes away from the image of z’raɠta standing before him.

“If I remember correctly, he has you calling him Dr. Weyth, right? Well, I suppose I can be Rob for now. Will that be all right?” Rob didn’t actually look back or pause for a response from Robert, charging up the ramp and through the still-open Aperture to Dr. Weyth’s past. “We haven’t got much time. They’re almost done with the version 4 Aperture on your side.” This time when Robert followed a future-version of himself through the ship’s corridors to the bridge, they were not alone. Half a dozen people in uniform were working at consoles Robert had somehow overlooked the first time he’d visited the room, because he had been overwhelmed with the view out the windows. “Everyone, stop what you’re doing,” Rob commanded the crew. They looked up, with expressions of alarm frozen on their faces.

“Is something wrong?”

“There’s been a change of plans. Everyone needs to meet at the other Aperture, in the past, for an announcement.” The crew of the ship must have thought Rob was Dr. Weyth, because they immediately leapt into motion, heading back toward the open Aperture in the hold. “Simmons,” continued Rob to one of the men, who halted and spun in place at the sound of his name. “Be sure there isn’t anyone left onboard. We need everyone present and accounted for on the other side of the Aperture in five minutes.” Simmons snapped a salute Rob’s direction, then turned and left without waiting for it to be returned. Rob addressed Robert, “Now that we’re alone…”

Robert watched as Rob reached into another pocket and pulled out another small black device from the future. This one looked a bit like an iPhone twenty revisions hence, and Rob quickly fingered it into action. “What are you doing?”

“I’m telling the microAperture on that version 4 gate to connect back in time to the microAperture I just handed Dr. Weyth, and putting in place a protocol to keep it open as long as possible. It’s important to him, right now, that this timeline be preserved.” Rob’s fingers moved quickly across an interface Robert couldn’t even see – like the holographic image of z’raɠta, Robert guessed that it could probably only be viewed from certain angles. “If you watch, you can probably see the Aperture out there contracting, as well.” Indeed, he did, wondering how that was possible. “Though the cloaking will probably come online before… yep, there it goes, before the Aperture is small enough to hide in the debris field.”

“What about the ship? Don’t they need to bring the ship back?” Robert didn’t bother to question how the Aperture’s cloaking worked. He wanted to know what the new plan was.

“Not this ship. Come on. We’ve got to explain things before they finish assembly of the version 4 Aperture on your side.” Rob rushed back to the open Aperture and through to Robert’s time, then led Robert outside to see what was going on out there for the first time. About a third of the dozens of people present were still busily working on the Aperture and on a huge sort of wheeled scaffolding for receiving the ship. The rest seemed to have heard word from those ordered off the ship that there was a change of plans; they were standing around chatting, wondering what was going on, some of them pointing and making faces at z’raɠta, still holding Dr. Weyth, at the edge of the group. Rob walked up and stood at the base of the nearly-complete Aperture whose arc reached high into the sky above them. “Excuse me, everyone?”

Many people turned to face him, but seeing a third iteration of Robert Weyth was enough to cause an eruption of chatter among them. Rob raised his voice.

“Please! May I have your attention, please!” Soon there was no noise left but that of the tools of those still working on the Aperture, and even they were trying to be quiet enough to hear what he had to say. “Thank you. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m not the Dr. Weyth you’ve come to know. I’m from the future you were about to create, and I’m here to tell you: It wasn’t enough. Earth has been destroyed again.” Rob had certainly been expecting the chatter and questions that now broke out from all sides, and waited patiently for it to die down before continuing. “Rather than try to answer your specific questions, I’d like to go over a few broad strokes of what would have happened. What I watched happen.” He noticed that those who had been working seemed to have fallen silent, and turned to address them, “Please continue your work. We need this Aperture working as soon as possible. You’ll understand why in a few moments.”

Robert marveled at the Aperture being constructed before him while Rob spoke. It looked to be about three times taller than the building that housed his labs, and too delicate to support its own weight. It was a manifestation of twenty-eight or twenty-nine years of future development from the device he’d first completed only hours before, and he guessed it was about to open up on a future another few decades further advanced. Robert’s head was spinning, even before Rob’s explanation rewrote his idea of what the future had been.

“As planned,” said Rob to the group, “we developed adaptations of all the technologies you brought back to us in secret, rolling them out to humanity a little at a time. We didn’t alert people to the danger that sgruƙ p’tau might someday be, but we gave humanity the ability to defend itself. We made sure military outposts were built alongside every human colony and space station. We armed the people with energy shielding and advanced weapons, and we made sure the right people knew how to use Apertures both offensively and defensively against any threat. At the earliest opportunity, we went out to the location of the probe and marked it off limits, so we could control when first contact would occur.

“With all the advances you brought back to us, humanity had a twenty-five year leap forward, and twenty years from now we thought we were ready to make first contact. Things started out as they had before, and sgruƙ p’tau made similar offers and similar statements to what you’ve heard before. They sent their envoys to study our culture, and they offered slightly more advanced technologies than they did the first time, since you’d already given us much more. Things seemed to be going better, and we made sure security was tighter, to try to prevent a repeat of the terrorist attack that started the war.

“As some of you may already know, Dr. Weyth had fallen in love with the sgruƙ emissary who had been assigned to him the first time.” There was a muted gasp from some of those listening. “She was assigned to me again this time, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her, myself. When the time for the five-year anniversary came around again, with humanity planning to celebrate in the same way that didn’t work out before, I couldn’t let z’raɠta risk her life. I knew we’d covered all our bases with security, that there couldn’t be a threat, but I couldn’t help the feeling that I ought to keep her from going.

“It turned out I was right. There was another attack, at the same time and the same event, killing all the sgruƙ tauƥ onboard. Only z’raɠta was saved. The sgruƙ p’tau declared war again, but this time we’d been expecting an attack on the shuttle. This time we had more people, and more advanced technology, watching. We weren’t going to let the terrorists get away. We scoured the evidence and, to our surprise, discovered that the sgruƙ p’tau had actually killed their own envoys and blamed it on us, as an excuse to start a war.”

Again there was a burst of questions and conversation from the group, and Rob waited for them to quiet down. They had known the sgruƙ were cold, calculating, and ruthless in their war against humanity, but they’d always thought it was humanity’s mistake that had started the war.

“As of the time z’raɠta and I have just come back to you from, the war has been raging for over eight years. Our military buildup, our advanced defenses and technologies, they helped. They slowed down the advance of the sgruƙ, and our Mark II Apertures -which is version 5, to you- have saved a lot of people, moving entire colonies, even whole moons, from place to place in the system before sgruƙ forces can find them and destroy them. Unfortunately, we’re still on the defensive. We haven’t been able to take the fight to them, because we haven’t had the capability of faster than light interstellar travel. Over time, that has cost us nearly everything.

“But I’m here with good news. We’ve captured one of their fastest ships, and its databases contain all the knowledge of a sgruƙ p’tau thirty-two years more advanced than they are today. Along with backups of human technologies, like this,” and he held up his strange iPhone-like device as though any of them could recognize the actual value of an artifact from the future, “we’re going to be able to bring the fight to the sgruƙ homeworld before they’ve ever heard of us.”

“It’s finished,” said one of the men who had been working on completing the huge version 4 Aperture while Rob had told them of their own failure to save the world. The lights on the Aperture were blinking excitedly, and Rob’s handheld device seemed to be telling him what they’d all guessed was about to happen.

Rob led everyone to a safe distance from the expanding event horizon of the opening Aperture, continuing to speak, “I still believe that peace can be achieved between humanity and sgruƙ p’tau. We just have to show them, right up front, that we’re technologically superior to them. We have to guide humanity through sixty years worth of human technology and centuries of sgruƙ technology in the next few years, so that when we show up on their doorstep, there’s no doubt in their minds.”

The Aperture opened, as planned, on empty space, with Earth’s atmosphere held back by the Aperture’s energy field. The alien ship floated gracefully through the opening without need for the scaffolding built to hold up the human’s ship. It was as different from any ship Robert had imagined as z’raɠta was from any alien he’d imagined, and it effortlessly hung in the air, a few feet off the ground. Beyond the strange ship, through the still-open Aperture, Robert could see what looked like the same space debris he’d seen in the other future. His mind wondered at the odd reality that he was within reach of two different terrible futures for humankind, neither of which would exist once the Apertures connecting them to this moment were closed.

Rob continued speaking after the alien ship was through. “With a fleet of interstellar ships, Apertures capable of shifting moons, planets, and small stars from one end of the galaxy to another in an instant, and the ability to travel backward through time to a point decades before the sgruƙ had ever heard of us, their cold calculations should leave them with no room for an error like declaring war on humanity.” Rob tapped something on the device in his hand, and the Aperture behind him closed, revealing blue sky now, rather than black and stars. “This Aperture will stand unused from now on, our failsafe against any future aggression. If, at any point in humanity’s future we need to go back to the beginning and set things right, there will be this receiving gate waiting. Watch and see; if it does not open now, we will know we have been successful.”

They all stared at the sky through the empty Aperture, or at the glinting metal ring itself, expectantly waiting. The moment stretched out, longer and longer as they silently stared, watching for the future to come back again and tell them they were going to make another mistake.

No one came.

The Aperture remained closed.

Soon they were all hard at work at building the future, instilled with the confidence that everything really was going to work out this time. Robert Weyth had finally secured humanity’s future.


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