Friday, October 5, 2012

Short Story: "Day Two"

I wrote this short story earlier this week (before the debate in case you were wondering). I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.

While I know this is generally an opinion blog, I thought it couldn't hurt to put a little fiction on here now and again.

This story is called "Day Two" and takes place in the not-too-distant-future. I'm not sure if this is a self-contained story or if it is the beginning of a much larger story, but for now I'm content with it as is. Enjoy!

Day Two

I was elected President of the United States yesterday, and already I feel like a different person than the one the people voted for. In four years, they’ll call me a liar, and they won’t be wrong. I did lie, I just didn’t know it until today, when I found out about the machine.
Margaret spotted a gray hair while I was getting cleaned up for dinner. They say it happens to every President. I guess now I know why. She plucked it from my head before she went to bed and laughed, “Honeymoon’s over already?”
I didn’t join her to bed. I told her I had some work to do. I had to write this. I had to get it out. I wish more than anything that I could talk to her about it, but I can’t, so I’ll write it.
The Archivist said I can speak in confidence with the former Presidents if I wish, but many of them may not want to think about it again. How did so many tolerate it? Well, I suppose not all of them could. Kennedy must have known what would happen to him. Did he see his death as a sacrifice or an escape? I suppose I’ll never know. Apparently, I cannot review the undocumented decisions made by former Presidents. They used that word. “Decisions.” As though there were more than one.
It is for this reason that I have decided to keep this journal; So that my successor will be able to learn from my actions. Or at least be able to feel less alone. The Archivist told me that many other Presidents had started writing journals, but none ever actually submitted them to the Archives. He did not know why, though he presumed that they were “advised” not to. He did not even know if their journals still existed. Knowing that no other President left a journal for me made the burden feel twice as heavy. I hope not to repeat this unkindness.
Allow me to speak directly to you, future President of the United States. What your Archivist probably just told you is true. The Simulator is exactly what he (or she) says it is. It is a perfect digital replica of the world, capable of producing 100% accurate simulations of decisions and knowing precisely how they will turn out and affect the future for centuries to come. An oracle. If you are anything like me, your instinct will be to prove it wrong. Let me save you time and pain. You can’t.
I told my Archivist that I would invite my Vice President to dinner and told him to put it into the Simulator. The Simulator said that he would decline the invitation unless I ordered him to accept it. The simplest of challenges. I breathed a sigh of relief. Of course I could convince my own Vice President to join my family for dinner without needing to pull rank. It was the day after our inauguration. How could he say no?
His mother had collapsed not five minutes before I asked him. He needed to be with her. What could I say? I wanted to offer him my sympathies, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Simulator. It knew. It knew what would happen to his mother and it didn’t tell me. I asked the Archivist why it didn’t mention it. He said, “The Simulator will only initially tell you the direct result and how to produce the desired result, if it is somehow possible. There are so many smaller variables that it cannot sort through them and determine which matter most to the person. How was the Simulator to know that you would want to warn him of his mother? You just wanted to invite him to dinner.”
The Archivist did tell me that the Simulator can answer any and all questions regarding any particular simulation. So if I had asked, “Why won’t he say yes?” the Simulator would have told me of the impending stroke. Then, if I had asked if his mother could be saved, it would have told me.
I haven’t asked it, though. It could tell me, but if I knew that there was a way I could have saved his mother, it would only be another regret.

I asked the Archivist how this was possible. How it could calculate for each individual’s choice. How it could account for random events. He told me that the only choice that mattered was mine. Mine was informed by the Simulator, but every other person’s choice is fixed so long as they don’t know for certain what their choice will result in.

To explain further he took out a graphing calculator. I hadn’t seen one of those since college. He typed in a function to produce a random number between 1 and 1,000. 64. He then asked me what number would appear next. I had no clue, so I chose some random number, I can’t remember which. The next number was 52, not the number I chose. Then 174, also not a number I chose.
I failed to see his point at first, but then he went into the calculator’s settings. He reset the device to its original factory settings. He hit the random number generator again with the same parameters and the first number that came up was 64. Again, he asked me to predict the next number.
“52,” I said. I was correct. “174,” I announced for the next one. Correct again. The random numbers, I learned, were not truly random. It was preprogrammed.
“True randomness is an illusion, Mr. President,” the Archivist quipped. “With the same conditions, the same events will occur no matter what. If I ask the calculator for a number between 1 and 1,000 after a factory reset, I will always get a 64, followed by a 52, followed by a 174. But with that knowledge, you can CHANGE the conditions...”
Again, he reset the calculator, but this time, he asked for a random number between 1 and 10. It was 5.
“So you see, the only way to truly change anything is through changing the conditions. Of course, you cannot reset the universe to its factory settings. But the Simulator contains a digital replica of the known universe. It can take your conditions and know exactly how they play out, and then reset them to test another simulation.”
He finished by handing me a small mobile device and standing quietly in the corner of the room. He told me I could begin whenever I was ready.

At first, this power seemed amazing, and perhaps it does to you as well, Dear Successor. No more risk. No more chance. The future... all futures, laid bare. The ability to be the greatest President who ever lived.

I spent the rest of the day eagerly running through simulation after simulation of every single promise I had made on the campaign trail. People say that hopeful Presidents will say anything on the campaign trail to get elected. I am no longer certain. I for one rarely said anything I didn’t completely believe in. Whether or not I could actually keep all of my promises, I still had intended to give it my best effort. Perhaps most Presidents start out that way, when they believe that trying in vain doesn’t cost anything but hurt pride.

For my first real question, I asked the Simulator, “Can I balance the budget by the end of my term?”
“No,” was its response. It did not have a caveat. No way around it.
Alright, perhaps that was a bit unrealistic. I followed with, “Can I stop the national debt from increasing by the end of my term?”
I tempered my expectations further, “Can I make the national debt smaller by the end of my term?”
“Not unless you liquidate your personal assets, pay a minimum of a $4 billion premium, and then immediately resign.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was deliberately provoking me. But it was not. It was giving me the only conceivable way to achieve what I had asked.
“Can I... slow the rate at which the deficit is increasing?” I asked, as my sudden sense of ultimate power finally vanished like a mirage in a desert.
“Yes,” it began. “While there are numerous possibilities, the best possible course of action would reduce the rate of national debt to $1.57 billion dollars a day. Would you like me to provide you with the optimal course of action?”
Curious, I agreed. The mobile device the Archivist gave me vibrated. I took it out of my pocket and saw that the Simulator had sent an enormously complicated and detailed plan, providing me with eight years of actions required to maximize the reduction in the rate of the ever-increasing national debt. Yes, eight years. It had accounted for what I would need to do to insure my reelection. As though it was some trivial matter.
I flipped through page after digital page on the mobile device, figuring out what would be expected of me. I would need to promise to increase taxes on the wealthy, but never fulfil the promise. I would need to give up my plans for improved health care. I would need to have another child. It even told me when I would need to conceive the child, when he would be born, and what I would have to name him. Apparently giving him the name Gabriel would have a slightly greater impact on the national debt than naming him Stewart.
I lost my temper. I shouldn’t have done that.
I asked threateningly to the Simulator, “What if I didn’t listen to you at all? What if I ignored all your advice and just proceeded as normal?”
The Simulator said, “There would be a temporal paradox resulting in the complete annihilation of the space/time continuum.”
It was then that the Archivist, still standing silently in the corner, interjected. This part may interest you, Dear Successor, as the Archivist failed to mention it until it became relevant.
He told me that the Simulator was not invented by us, at least not yet. It was a gift from our future. The only gift from our future that we are aware of. It’s a bit confusing, but essentially, in the future, a team of scientists will create the Simulator. When that happens, we will take it from them, kill them, destroy their research, and hold onto the Simulator until another team of scientists develops a time machine. Then we seize that as well and send the Simulator as far back into the past as possible. Obviously, it couldn’t exist in a time before standardized electricity and it supposedly deduced that certain Presidents would order its destruction. It apparently determined FDR’s administration as the optimal starting point.

The Archivist said, “Some of my predecessors believed that it was the reason he managed to stay President for as long as he did, but I personally believe that he didn’t start using it until after Pearl Harbor. Even so, the fact that he was reelected three times and led the U.S to victory in WWII was probably enough to convince Truman to give it a try.”

Anyway, if any of these things fail to occur, the Simulator will never come to exist in the past, meaning it will never exist in the present, resulting in a universe-ending paradox. As such, the Simulator’s first priority when giving advice is to make sure that none of the advised actions will prevent the Simulator and the time machine from being invented and procured by the U.S..
I asked the Archivist if anyone else had ever refused to listen to the Simulator. He said he couldn’t tell me, but that I was welcome to assume based on who has the worst reputation.
I got up the nerve to call George W. Bush not long after. He was the only living former President who agreed to take my call, despite not being in the best health these days. Though the call was secure, I was still forbidden from speaking of the Simulator directly. Still, he knew what I was talking about. Of course he did.
“Did you ignore it?” I asked bluntly, too nervous to beat around the... well, you know.
I heard a faint noise. I couldn’t tell if he was coughing or chuckling. “They always ask me that. Every single one.”
“I’m sorry,” I responded instinctively.
“No you’re not. Obviously you think I did. How else could you explain it? Right?”
“Then tell me this, Mr. President. Why did I answer the phone? Why would I subject myself to another President looking for someone to blame?”
My stomach turned to stone as I replied, “You didn’t ignore it?”
“Of course I didn’t. Why would I? I inherited some of the best times in history. No wars, not real ones anyway. A decent economy, a surplus... Things were going great. Why would I try to change anything?”
“Then what happened? 9/11, two failing wars, the economic downturn... Why?”
“Because even though I didn’t ignore it, my dad did. My dad found out that he wasn’t going to get reelected. He saw Clinton coming from 4 years away and he still couldn’t do anything about it. He assumed that it was manipulating him. Telling him to give up because it thought the world would be better off if Clinton won. He thought it was lying to him. How could there possibly be no path to reelection in all the nearly infinite possible futures? So he started ignoring it. He probably figured that if he wasn’t going to get re-elected anyway, why take its advice? But he didn’t understand that not everything has an immediate result. Sure, he wouldn’t have gotten re-elected even if he had listened, but by refusing to listen, everything started falling off course. The plans of every President since World War II fell to pot. It’s kind of tragic, really. Most Presidents only care about the next four or eight years. If more of them had shown more foresight, perhaps they would have accounted for my dad messing it all up.”
“What about Clinton?” I asked. “He didn’t seem to have any trouble.”
“Like I said, most Presidents only care about the next four or eight years. Clinton probably could have made things easier for me. But why would he? If he could make himself look good for the history books, what did he care if it would just make things harder for the next guy in line? Bubbles set to burst, but not until after his term ended. Failed foreign policy and unrest in the Middle East that wouldn’t come to a head until 2001. He probably figured he’d let me deal with it. After all, it was because of a Republican that the problem existed in the first place, so a Republican ought to be the one to suffer. He left the hard decisions to me.”
“I still don’t understand. What did the Simulator tell you?”
“I was told to fail. I was told that too much had gone awry. We needed something extreme or our nation would fall apart. Maybe the consequences could have been passed off for another administration, but I made a different choice. I let so many horrible things happen because I was told that it was the best chance for our future. I did what my dad couldn’t do. I did what Clinton couldn’t do. I sacrificed my public image to help steer things back on course.”
I sat silently for what felt like a full minute, just breathing into the phone. Finally, I asked, “Why would you do that? Why trust it?”
“Because I asked my dad before he passed away, ‘Did it tell you what it would do to me?’ He didn’t answer, but I’d like to think that if it had told him that his willful ignorance would cause his own son to go down in history as one of the worst Presidents of all time, then he might not have done it. Maybe I’m naive. But I asked it. I asked what would happen to my children if I ignored it. If I stopped the horrible things that I knew were coming. If I actually tried to make a real difference. It said that my children would be erased from all existence, along with the rest of the universe. It said that if I deviated too much at this point, a paradox would be inevitable. So I did it. I did what I’d like to think my father would have done if he had known.”
Again, I was silent. I couldn’t bear to ask the old man another question. I couldn’t imagine his pain. I simply said, “Thank you.”
He didn’t acknowledge my thanks. He wanted something more.

“Just promise me one thing,” he demanded. “The next time you ask the Simulator a question, don’t end it with, ‘By the end of my term.’”

The Simulator tells me that President Bush will probably still be alive by the time you read this, assuming my choices don’t somehow alter that result. If he is, please call him and thank him. Not many people will.

So now I sit here, typing into my journal, wondering what to sacrifice. When I was elected, I was going to prioritize the economy. Now my priority is to prevent universal annihilation by making sure that two particular machines will one day be invented and that the U.S. will still be around to use them. I’ll be lucky to accomplish anything else.

“Why can we do so little?” I asked the Archivist. “I’m the President of the United States. Why can I only affect so much?”
“The world has changed,” he said. “There was a time when the President could do anything. Even politicians that belonged to opposing parties would at least listen. Not anymore. These days the President is limited. He is no longer infallible. He needs a united party that is willing to follow him. That party needs to have the political power to push things through. If it’s too extreme, the opposing party will simply block it. The Simulator could help you write a bill that would solve every problem in the country, and it would be laughed out of the Senate simply because of the way the system has ended up. And no, we can’t tell them about the Simulator. If too many powerful people are aware of it, it would influence their behavior and make them less predictable. In a best-case scenario, it would introduce too many variables for the Simulator to work through, rendering it marginally inaccurate. And even that much is unacceptable.”
He didn’t have to say what the worst-case scenario would be. It’s always universal annihilation.
“Let me give you some advice,” he said, possibly noting how dejected I looked.

“Sure,” I conceded. I might as well get used to the notion of taking advice since that’s basically all I’ll be doing for the next eight years.

“Take the small victories that you can,” he said. “Look at this as a blessing. No, you won’t be able to accomplish what you set out to do. You won’t be the President that will fix the economy. You won’t end the War on Terror. Heck, you probably won’t even end the War on Drugs. But you can make little differences. Stop dwelling on what you can’t do and instead focus on what you can do. What you know you can do. You may not have much power, but what you do have is still far more than what anyone else on this planet has.”

Tomorrow I hope to find out what I can do.

I’ll also ask Margaret what she thinks of the name Gabriel.