The Redaction Machine
On the 3rd of October 2351 a machine flared to life. Huge energies coursed into it via cables, only to leave moments later as heat dumped unwanted into its radiators. With an enormous puff the machine unleashed sixty years of human metabolic entropy into superheated steam.
In the heart of the machine was Jane, a person of the early 21st century.
From her perspective there was no transition. One moment she had been in the year 2021, sat beneath a tree in a park. Reading a detective novel.
Then the book was gone, and the tree. Also the park. Even the year.
She found herself laid in a bathtub, immersed in sickly fatty fluids. She was naked and cold.
The first question Jane had for the operators and technicians who greeted her with a warm towel was “where am I?″. They brought back the dead a hundred times a day, and knew that it was best to answer when, not where.
Jane’s second question was “how did I come to be in the year 2351?″.
The answer begins in the year 2021. Jane sat beneath a tree. She read her book. She walked home. She attended university. She played her guitar. Went to pubs and festivals with her friends. She studied philosophy as her course, but there wasn’t much work going in analysing Plato so she got a job in marketing.
She married, had children. Lived a normal enough life.
She followed the scientific news no more than most. She did watch the much-hyped documentary about the possibility of restoring objects to a previous state. She found it a disappointment. So they could get a single molecule to unreact? Maybe some chemist somewhere cared.
But technology’s march was unceasing. The egg was unboiled only two decades later.
The redaction machines, as they came to be known, restored an object to a previous state. Set the machine for 10 minutes and insert your alarm clock. Ping! The machine takes no time at all to operate. Within find alarm clock, time as it read 10 minutes ago.
Smash said alarm clock with hammer. Insert the pieces into the machine. Activate. Find alarm clock restored, exactly, to state 10 minutes prior. No longer smashed. It is not now a repaired alarm clock. If something has been repaired then one supposes that it was once broken. A repaired thing still possesses the history of being broken and then fixed. But that clock, as taken from the machine, is the clock from earlier, before it ever suffered damage. Its history taken from it. The breakage unhappened.
The first resurrection was only a half-decade after the egg. By the same token as the clock this was not truly a resurrection. It was a restoration, an undoing of time’s passage on a single person. “Resurrection″, despite its flaws as a term, became the standard manner of speaking about these things.
Accidental death dropped to almost zero in the developed world. Or at least, unredacted, accidental death did. Truly the number of deaths increased modestly, as some people became more brazen. But nearly all were redacted.
Ambulances would carry the corpses made by a traffic accident to a redaction clinic. Death 1 hour ago. Re-set patient. It would be a shock to transition from driving to a strange hospital, with no memory of the accident (the neurochemistry encoding any such memory was just as unhappened as the tearing of ligaments and the crush of bones). But it was surely better than being dead.
During redaction every subatomic particle in an object would run its past trajectory backwards as best it could. The theory of relativity demanded that centre-of-mass motion of the object as a whole be an exception to this rule. Reality complied.
For humans, respiration acted in reverse. Blood cells passed backwards through arteries, carrying newly minted oxygen from the muscles out to the lungs to exhale. Electrical impulses travelled the nervous system in the wrong direction. Was there sensation? Was there pain? In forwards time these electrical signals could stimulate these qualia. When played backwards in an eyeblink? Who could say. Even if there was pain there was no memory of it, no possibility of memory.
The panelled walls of the redaction machine broadcast energy and radiation inwards to drive this back-propagation. Reflected back from the object came heat and entropy, radiated by these same panels outwards into coolant systems that comprised the bulk of the machine’s volume and complexity.
There were many theological objections. The greatest complaints came from the Abrahamic faiths. Although the Catholic church took no official stance on the machine many of its priests denounced it. The mechanics of the objections were varied. Some claimed that people restored to life (or even to a previous state) were soulless automatons: zombies that made an act of life after the one true soul of the person had departed for the afterlife. An alternative claim was that the machine pulled the soul back into the mortal plane. However most did not ground their objection in any particular metaphysical explanation, instead opting to convey honestly uninformed disquiet.
Despite these spiritual disputes, use of the machine propagated fast. Undoing death in accidents was the tip of the iceberg. Next came other accidental injury, loss of limb for example.
Jane herself was redacted for the first time in 2063. Her age was 64. Her cause of death: slipping on icy porch stairs. She hit her head on the corner of a square stone flower pot.
She was still alive when they redacted her. The doctors hadn’t even tried to treat her head wound. They took one look and knew that their conventional ministrations had very little chance of preserving her life, and that even if she did survive she would never be the same. It was better to just zap the last hours off her.
She, of course, had no memory of sustaining the injury.
After this encounter with these new machines Jane took an interest in them. She spoke at dinner parties about whether she was the same “her″ who she had been before being reset. She followed the various legal issues in the news with intense curiosity.
The murder trial fascinated her. Could he be convicted? He had killed a woman in cold blood, the evidence was indisputable. But, he had later redacted himself. This him had no memory of committing murder, nor even (he claimed) of planning it.
He was, in the end, found guilty. Sentenced to three years imprisonment. This was a typical enough sentence for murder in the modern world. After all, the murder-victim was completely fine.
The machines became tools of both scientific and criminal enquiry. Information security was changed, as the concept of “deleted data″ became a dinosaur. A wiped hard drive could be redacted. Even a physically vandalised hard drive could be similarly restored.
The dinosaurs themselves could not be recovered. Redaction conserved mass, so to make a healthy Tyrannosaur from its fossils one needed to place enough surplus matter in the machine to make up the difference. Mass enough to knit flesh and blood around the skeleton. However, reliable machine operation required that the great majority of the mass within the machine was from the target object. This was why a person was restored to a previous state and not their breakfast toast. More mass was interested in reverting to a previously human state. Dinosaurs could not be done. Enough ballast to flesh them out was also too much for the fossils to win out the mass-contest. They did manage to bring back a frozen mammoth though, and the machine found various other uses in the field of palaeontology.
Other sciences found uses for the machines. In physics laboratories redaction machines were used to reset atoms to their state at around the time of the Big Bang. Chemists, engineers, all made good use of the technology.
However, to Jane’s fascination, the field of science to gain the most was psychology.
Before the machines, psychology studies typically involved a control group and a test group. The two groups naturally exposed to situations that differed only according to a single experimental parameter. Any difference in the average response between the two groups, over and above statistical fluctuation, could be attributed to the control parameter. Each person was different, each responded differently. You needed enough people so that fluctuations at the individual level were sufficiently erased, leaving only population tendencies.
With the machines a single, identical, person could be exposed to both situations. They could take the survey given to them by a woman. Then you could reset them, on an atomic level, to the exact state they had been in beforehand. If you changed nothing they would give the same response, how could they not? But this time see how they responded to the same survey given by a man.
A change in response need not be a group effect. Not some average tendency in a given population. It would be a replicable trait attributable exactly to that one person, in that exact state they were in at the start of the experiment. Does the room temperature affect the way this specific person responds to losing a rigged game? Well, let’s get that exact person to play that game in the same room twenty times at twenty different temperatures, each time resetting them back to the same start-state.
Of course some prospective participants refused to have such machines used on them. But many people were happy to participate in these experiments, especially when offered financial incentives.
Despite the many ingenious applications to which the machines were put, people still grew old. Accident was quite a different beast from disease and old age. When a young person was killed in a kinetic moment resetting was an obvious course of action. But when the elderly died slowly from chronic conditions the machines were less obviously applicable. Reset granny to before she developed the tumour? How many years ago was that again?
Many things fed into the new tradition. The demographic crisis played a part. Redaction machine company lobbying perhaps contributed. However it happened, it soon became ingrained.
Some people, in their wills, left an age. “On the occasion of my death I wish to be redacted to my state at the age of 21, as far can be determined with the precision of the available data.″
It wasn’t so much that you survived, but that some kind of version of you survived. Was the “you″ of sixty years ago “you″? Most people decided dubious reincarnation was better than cremation.
The early twenties was a typical reset age. There were several reasons for this. First came practicality. You needed to emerge from the machine old enough to take care of yourself. If you were still a dependent then who would you depend on? Your parents were probably long gone.
The next reason was government poking. Old person, retired: expensive. Redact them back and you have a new worker for the economy. Redact them too far and they become expensive again, they are a child, they need looking after. Redact them to middle age and they are difficult, they had a job and a family, they want those things back. Nevermind the industry is gone and the family are now either dead or hopelessly out of sync in time. No, the early twenties were best. Back when they had done their schooling but had yet to really latch on like a limpet to some part of the economic organism. So redacting to your twenties was subsidised, and subsidised heavily.
Finally came nostalgia. People liked the person they had been back at that sort of age.
Jane was one of the early adopters of the “new iteration″ approach to death. Setting it all up was damned expensive: she died at ninety—about 70 years of redaction time multiplied by a typical human metabolic rate and mass landed you with a lot of redaction entropy. Look at the price of energy, convert the Kilowatt hours and it came to a lot of money. She had to set up an on-death remortgage of her home to cover it even with the subsidies.
A young Jane emerged from a redaction machine. A young woman in a strange world. She found an unfamiliar house, mortgaged to pay for an unfamiliar treatment. She lived a new life, married, retrained as a pharmacist. She had occasional, awkward, meetings with the children from her last iteration. These children were far older than she was and she had no memory of raising them. Once they took her to the grave of their father, the husband she didn’t remember. She left flowers at the stranger’s tombstone, puzzled and bored by the experience. She spent most of it thinking about how foolish it seemed in hindsight to have scattered his ashes so widely.
Over and over it went. A young Jane emerged from a machine. She lived a life. She grew old, she either died or pre-empted it by redacting early. A young Jane emerged from a machine… By her second re-set the technology was mainstream. Redaction rode the back of fusion and became a technology for the masses. Jane’s third iteration lived in a world where nearly half the population had been reset at least once.
So the cycle continued. Until we arrive back in the year 2351. Nine-minutes to midnight as the groan worthy fathers of this time liked to joke.
She had to quarantine before she could leave the facility that redacted her. Her microbes were from three-hundred and thirty years in the past. She may be carrying any number of viruses that were now thankfully eliminated.
While she was quarantined they showed her a video from some strange old woman who couldn’t really explain what was happening clearly: her last iteration. Once the old woman who Jane couldn’t think of as herself had finished her piece to camera a more professionally made video “re-oriented″ her to the Earth of 2351.
Jane cried the first few nights. All her friends and family would now be dead or “de-synced″ from her. With some digging around online she found she had a lot of descendants, children, and grandchildren all the way down to 3-greats.
Her email, bank account, and SocNet accounts had been set to “Bio-Authenticate″ while she was reset. A small computer on wheels drove itself into her room and, after showing a lengthy legal disclaimer in video format, took a sample of blood from a needle. Once the blood had been authenticated the machine allowed her to reset her passwords for her accounts.
Jane logged into her accounts.
First the email. Her inbox had been scrubbed clean. The only email was one sent the day before. It was from a daughter another version of her had had. It was a pleasantry, nothing more. “I hope the redaction is treating you well. If you are ever planning on being in Brazil please drop by.″ It seemed that meeting your mother as she was before she had you was not something you particularly sought out. Jane’s sort-of-daughter seemed to be treating her as a not particularly close family member.
Then the bank account. The amount of money was initially shocking, but she had failed to account for over three-hundred years of inflation. Accounting for this it became less “Bond villain holds world to ransom″ value and a lot more “reasonable retirement fund″.
Finally the SocNet. Like the email, scrubbed clean. Just a name, date of birth, and current age given as 83 (that needed correcting to account for the latest redaction).
Before Jane knew it her quarantine was completed and a taxi took her home. She found her flat, furnished in a Scandinavian style, wood painted pastel blue featured heavily as did gleaming steel radiators shaped like towel rails. The front door she opened with her SocNet account and a fingerprint.
She found her bedroom, sat on the bed and wondered what the hell to actually do. Her old life was hundreds of years gone. She would not now go and do her university course (or had already done it she supposed), the friends and family she had had were either permadead or so massively de-synced that they were basically other people.
Why the hell had her previous iteration done this to her?
Much later a red eyed Jane decided that she was now in this life. So she might as well do something with it.
She walked around the flat that was apparently hers, giving it a proper look over. It looked “old fashioned″ by modern standards, which meant that to Jane it looked very modern. It was all so “old fashioned″ in fact that it actually had some real, physical, paper “dead-tree″ books.
To hell with it, start small. What was the name of the detective novel she had been reading under that tree? If it was here she might as well find out how it ended.
The detective novel was indeed up on the shelf (not just the same edition from under the tree, but the same actual book). Jane lay diagonally across the best armchair, and started reading just where she had left off three-hundred-odd years ago, or a week ago subjectively.
The book did her a lot of good. It connected her two lives. On finishing it Jane fell asleep where she was on the chair.
Jane was woken up by the ringing of her doorbell. Checking the digital clock on the oven she saw it was midnight: who would be visiting?
The doorbell rang again. The time between rings noticeably less than one “standard polite wait″.
She went to the door uncertainly. Who could it be? Should she open it?
The buzzer-machine had a camera that let her see the person outside. They were a woman of about Jane’s age. The screen pinged up with a digital frame around their face, which identified them as “Name: Susan McLinty. Role: Great-Great-Granddaughter. - Verified by SocNet.″
Jane let the other woman in.
“Hey Gran-Gran.″ she said, opening her arms for a hug. Then she blinked at Jane and her arms dropped to her sides. “Oh, you redacted. Do-ya-know me?″
Jane said she did not, but the system had marked her out as a relative.
“Yeah, it would do. So, like … I know this is a really weird thing to ask when we haven’t met before in this iteration or anything, but … I kind of got kicked out by my landlord and I, erm well …″
Jane offered Susan a place to stay. “I don’t know if there is a spare bedroom though″ she said.
“There sure was a couple of years ago″ said Susan with a big smile. “I retained some of my last stay, thought I would keep a little of my time with my Gran-Gran.″
They found Susan’s spare bedroom just as she expected it. Then Susan showed Jane where her booze was.
It seemed her previous iteration had been really into wine. The wine was high-end stuff, but that was completely wasted on Susan and Jane who selected bottles based off alcohol-%.
Carrying a bottle each they headed to the living room and set about the process of getting seriously drunk.
“What! You have to read this bottle, its like … so super pretentious!″ said Susan, “Aromas of nutmeg and sweet tones evocative of lavender with a strong body.″
“Ha! My old iteration had expensive tastes maybe.″ said Jane. Then, thinking, “What was she like?″
“She was a nice lady. But like, she was seventy years old or something last I knew her. She let me crash with her for a while, I only retained a few days and she was pretty great those days. But, Jane, as much as I loved my Gran-Gran I could never drink like this with her! Should we get another bottle?″
Another bottle later and Susan entered the awkwardly thankful stage of drunkenness. She couldn’t stop thanking Jane for letting her stay, and needed an arm under her to get her to bed.
“I can’t believe he kicked me out. Bastard landlord.″ she muttered as Jane left her to bed.
The next morning Jane and Susan continued to bond, this time over their hangovers. It seemed that Gran-Gran’s posh taste in drink had poisoned them both.
The two of them sat at a stone kitchen top in Jane’s old-fashioned/modern kitchen. A plate of toast and mug of tea each helped them recover. Over breakfast Jane asked Susan what had happened to get her kicked out of her home.
It took some explaining to get to the bottom of it.
Susan was a day-counter. Like many people she had decided that she only had 70-100 odd years of her time on earth. When that ran out she was gone, yes some new iteration of her could live but, that wasn’t really her, or not this her.
So anyway, she counted days. She kept a short-range redaction machine at home so that every night she could decide “was that day I just had worth spending one of my days of life on keeping?″. If she decided “no″ then she would redact it away.
Her life was so alien that Jane struggled to wrap her head around it. Susan had worked at a cafe for the last 15 years, but had only retained a small part of the experience—times relating to essential training or particularly joyous work days. It wasn’t quite fair to say that for 15 years every day at work had been her first day (that would certainly get you fired!), but maybe every day had been in her first week.
As she pried into how it all worked Jane couldn’t help but notice that Susan was, to put in bluntly: useless. She was physically 25 but was on her first iteration and had been born 75 years ago! Since leaving school less than 1 day in 5 met her standards for “keeping″. She had, in some sense, experienced a half-century of Saturdays and skipped the rest. Jane wondered how much worse Susan suffered on the bad days for it. Her memories were all the best of the best days, so even a typical working day might hit her hard. The princess’s first day working in the kitchens.
And then, after going through all that challenge, she would zap away the day and be exactly back where she had been the next morning. Princess’s first day in the kitchens again, and again.
Susan’s recent crisis was new. Yesterday she had woken up to find a message from her past self telling her she had been fired and didn’t need to go to work. Then she realised with a shock that the message was six months old and her bank account was overdrawn. She hadn’t paid rent in months.
Susan couldn’t remember where the money had gone, but there had been enough empty bottles in her room to give some indication. She could check her card history, but had made a decision not to. Later that morning the landlord had, more or less, forced her into the street.
So here she was, what savings she had disappeared into some unremembered binge.
“So, when you say the machine you have at home is “short-ranged″ what do you mean?″ Jane asked.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. It can only send things back up to like 48 hours. Only got that much power.″
“But you could send something back 48 hours, then hit it again straight away for another 48 hours surely?″
Here Susan’s eyes narrowed like she had only just realised that this whole world, the machines and everything about them, was a foreign country to Jane.
“They don’t work like that. After each use it takes 12 hours or something before it cools down.″
“What if you cooled it faster?″
“Well, it takes about the same time to recharge its capacitors from the mains. If it had a better electric supply and big condensers to cool faster then it wouldn’t be a “short ranged″ redactor any more.″
Later that day Jane helped Susan get her machine back from the bailiffs. It seemed an easy way to help, Susan clearly cared about it a great deal. It seemed that, in Susan’s politics, the bailiffs taking the machine in the first place was an attack on her civil liberties and lifestyle choices. Getting the machine back was, she later felt, a huge mistake.
It was a coffin-like contraption with bedding inside, programmed to activate (if set to do so) while Susan was asleep, and set her back to another sleeping state (this did away with the unpleasantly abrupt transition). It was decorated in a style that was, by Jane’s three-hundred year old standards, really tacky. By Susan’s modern standards it was god-awful-tacky, but it was second hand and very cheap.
In addition to the coffin part of the machine was the condenser: a Dalek sized drum of metal connected to the main part by hose. Redaction produced a mean amount of heat. People were entropy factories and when their time got run back the universe demanded compensation—The Second Law would not be denied its dues. The machine contained over a hundred kilograms of water but the heat from back-propagating Susan’s constituent particles by just 24 hours vaporised it all.
“Are you going to bankrupt me with electric bills?″ asked Jane.
″ “Electric bills″?!” That’s the most pre-fusion thing I have ever heard!″ answered Susan with a laugh. “Were they still burning dinosaurs in your time?″
With her machine returned to her Susan returned to a pattern of redacting away every single day. She was still unemployed, out of a home and unhappy, so she zapped the days away. Zap, zap, zap. The knock-on was that Jane had almost the same conversations with her everyday—super boring.
Jane made a conscious effort to think about what she wanted to do in this life. Doing some research on her previous iterations she found that all of them had decided to take the route that paid bills, none had really properly followed the philosophy angle she had been half-considering at Uni. This time round she had quite a lot left over from “Gran Gran″, and no inheritance tax (“Inheritance tax? No, no, no. You are the same person.″ said the man from the bank when she asked). She could afford to take a bit of risk.
She had been redacted back to before she had fully finished her uni course, but apparently people were surprisingly happy to give you the benefit of qualifications you didn’t remember getting, so long as it was nothing vocational like law or medicine.
In any case she could do a short online catch-up course that would give her a new certificate for this iteration.
It was something to do and that was worth a lot. She video chatted with course mates about the syllabus and life in general. Most of them were recent redacts, but the others found the world less crazy than Jane. She was the only one born pre-machine. The others had all grown up half-expecting to find themselves thrown randomly into the future at some point.
One particular online lecture really stood out for Jane. It was about redaction machines.
The nub of the idea was a thought experiment. Suppose someone is kidnapped and is told that the following will happen to them. First they are shown a countdown. When it reaches zero they will then be tortured painfully to death (why did people always make these things so gruesome? thought Jane). Once they have died they will be redacted back, to their exact state at the end of the countdown (just as the number hit zero) and set free.
What does the person in this situation feel as the clock ticks down? What should the person feel? What should they feel when they see the number hit zero and find that they are still in the torture chamber? What should they feel if they instead find themselves jumped forwards in time as the countdowns ends? What probability do they assign to the chance of them finding themselves in one branch or the other?″
To Jane the answer seemed obvious.
“Its 50⁄50.″ she said. “It’s no different from a coin toss. There are going to be two copies of you, but at different times. One will suffer, the other not. So if you see that it hits zero you know you were unlucky and will be disappointed. If you find yourself transition at that moment then you know you are the other iteration, the lucky one. You have escaped. You would be relieved.″
“OK.″ smiled the lecturer through the screen of Jane’s computer, clearly getting ready for her punchline. “If that was 50⁄50 Jane, then back when you were in childhood, what chance should you assign to you finding yourself as the copy of you that experiences the life of your first iteration?″
“Well, I have been redacted four times. So one in five.″ Jane answered.
“But that is only so far! Do you intend to have future iterations? How many more? Has the number of iterations you will have already been predetermined?″
Jane thought long and hard about the thought experiment afterwards. She couldn’t really work out the right way of thinking about it. If the redaction machine were replaced by a hypothetical replication machine then she thought it was easy. After replication there were two exact copies of her. Both would have all her exact memories. But they would diverge in experience thereafter. She would find herself as one of the two, either stepping out of the replication machine or standing outside the machine watching the copy step out. It was, she thought, clearly a 50⁄50 probability in this case which one she would find herself to be.
But with the redaction it became harder. How many copies were there? How many young Janes would emerge from machines in the far future? Jane’s rudimentary understanding of the philosophy of probability didn’t seem to help. The frequentist got doubly lost in nonlocality over time. And Jane wasn’t sure being subjective about probability helped much. How many redactions did she expect?
Susan was still really annoying. When the wine ran out she started pestering Jane about borrowing money to buy drink. Jane refused, knowing that Susan had no chance of retaining the experience of borrowing money to drown her sorrows yet again.
By now they had lived together for weeks. But for Susan waking up suddenly unemployed, broke and homeless had only happened yesterday. She needed some time to feel sorry for herself, to get blind drunk. To vent a little.
But she had done all that a hundred times, nearly thirty times here with Jane, and who knew how many times at home before that. It was an experience she hated and had chosen a hundred times not to retain. She was a fool and a pathetic one. Her weedy grovelling for booze-money from Jane interrupted her lessons. She asked the same way, with almost the same words every single day. Susan didn’t have the perspective to see what a deep rut she was in. For her this was day two in Jane’s flat, she was still waking up with the same hangover that “Gran Gran’s″ wine had given them both that first night.
At first Jane fond it simply inexplicable—how could Susan be so stupid? It took time to understand. Susan had rejected the idea that a miserable day might be necessary as a general stance years ago. More recently, she had decided that this specific awful experience wasn’t one to keep—and that was a decision she made once again for the first time every day.
On Jane’s day two she had gone supermarket shopping to stock the house. She had asked Susan what she liked and bought her favourite cereal. Jane couldn’t eat it as she was allergic to nuts, but it was Susan’s favourite. For the next twenty days, at about midday, she heard the words “Hey, Jane, it must run in the family, this is my favourite cereal too!″ shouted up the stairs to her. Announcing that Susan was awake and would do the whole “What you doing?″, “Oops, sorry for interrupting your online lesson thingy″ routine any minute.
Jane thought it was bad when Susan drank. Now the wine was out it was worse. The wheedling, the arguing. Jane was not supposed to be responsible for an alcoholic on a loop.
Of course she tried to persuade Susan not to use her machine. But there are only so many ways of having that conversation and all were exhausted unsuccessfully by week two.
Then it happened. One day Jane’s slowly fraying temper snapped. Susan had just started stepping sideways towards the idea of “getting some drinks to have this evening″ like she always did, when Jane lost it. She shouted at Susan. She screamed and stamped and swore at her. Susan fled crying to her room.
Jane slept terribly, she felt so guilty. The version of Susan she had screamed at had not yet started wheedling and begging in that infuriating way. Although she had once again been on that trajectory.
The next morning Jane sheepishly put a mug of tea outside Susan’s bedroom. Then waited in the kitchen, feeling cold and stiff, wondering if Susan would accept the apology. Or would she be angry?
Susan couldn’t remember it. She had zapped the episode away. Today was exactly the same for her. Jane’s outburst had made absolutely no difference to anything.
Jane didn’t lose her temper again for another week. But she did lose it again. Susan was always shocked when Jane lost it. She always started babbling and crying and soon fled to her room. She always redacted and forgot all about it.
Jane had been working so hard to keep her temper. For what? It made literally no difference if she spent the whole day being nice to Susan or not. She could buy her the coveted drinks. They could relive some near-clone of Susan’s second day—a dreadfully dull experience for Jane. Or Jane could take the easy route, not bother to contain her frustration. Her parents were dead. Her uni housemates that she lived with just two months ago, from her perspective, dead. Friends: dead. She didn’t know the world outside her flat, it was too strange and terrifying. And to top it all off she lived with a drunk who was annoying in the same way every day.
The thing that made it inevitable was the lack of consequence. Each time Jane’s frustration came out as shouting and screaming that sent Susan running away in tears it changed nothing. Jane became quicker to anger, harsher in her shouting. It wasn’t at all planned, but one day she let go of herself so much that she slapped Susan. Shocked even more than normal, Susan fled to her room crying.
The next morning saw another cup of tea at Susan’s door. A sleepless Jane trying to work out how to say sorry.
Another oblivious Susan with no memory of the event.
One day the doorbell rang. It was the first time it had rang since Susan herself had arrived nearly three months ago.
Jane looked at the entry screen thing. “Name: Lillian Morgen. Role: Police Officer. - Verified by MET Police.″
Jane felt a flutter of fear, but she couldn’t work out why, so forced it away. She let the police in, two officers and a social worker. They verified her identity and that Susan lived with her.
Then they arrested Jane, took her to a police car and then a police station. She was shocked and terrified. A part of her knew what it was, but she suppressed that part ferociously. She had done nothing wrong she screamed in her mind.
She found herself in a small room with a mirror that probably doubled as a window. Three cameras looked at her and the police woman, a forty-something woman with rower’s shoulders, took a seat across from her. The police woman began explaining the situation to Jane.
“First, I would like to remind you that, by law, all redaction machines take a medical scan of their occupant immediately before activation. A record of the person before they back propagate.″ The woman looked at Jane and she felt her stomach sinking.
“Why?″ asked Jane. “What have I been arrested for? Do I not get a lawyer or something?″
“The system″, she indicated the cameras, “has got every approved lawyer installed. You can access any of them for advice using an interface later. For now though any of them are able to interrupt if it will help you. I will explain the nature of the charges against you, so that you can make an informed choice.″ The woman gave Jane a hard look.
“These medical records are transmitted to a central police database. It is to preserve a record of crimes committed against victims who are later redacted. Things like murder, violence, sexual assault … and domestic abuse.″ Jane may have been projecting, but she felt like those last words were thrown at her with unhidden disgust.
Jane didn’t argue out loud, she was too busy arguing inside. Her stomach felt cold and seemed to sink right through her chair down to the floor. She hadn’t abused Susan … had she? She had lost her temper sometimes, shouted at her. Her hand tingled with the memory of slapping Susan. OK so there had been that one time, or was it two? There was the time she had kicked her as well. Wait, that might have been more than once as well. It all blurred together.
She partly returned to the interrogation room. She heard some of what was being said. Read to her from a tablet computer.
″… December 13th: Bruising to lower torso. December 14th: Split lip, torso bruising again...″
Jane couldn’t believe it. She was a good person. Yes she sometimes, very rarely, lost her temper because Susan was so infuriating but she would never … but she had. The medical files said so. It was like the world was wrong somehow. And Jane’s memories were also wrong for some reason and, and …
Jane felt sick. Oh hell what had she done?!
She looked up into the face of the police woman. She took a deep breath. She deserved this. She would deny nothing. She would admit it. At least, she would once she got to the end of the information and had the chance to check it all with her digital lawyers.
The police woman disappeared. So did the interrogation room. Even the handcuffs.
Jane suddenly found herself in a familiar type of machine. Once again she lay in a bath of fatty liquid, the surplus mass that some future version of her had shed while propagating backwards. Once more overall clad technicians came to check she was healthy. Her confession was frozen on the tip of her tongue.
She was led to a shower where she washed off the remains of her future self. Jane then dressed in the provided clothes and made her way out to the new-new-world she found herself in.
Her admission felt solid in her throat. So heavy that it felt almost like it was constricting her breathing.
Outside the shower room she was greeted by a uniformed man.
“When did you come from?″ he asked.
“I, it was, in the police station.″
“OK. What year?″ he asked, inviting her to take a seat in a small office. He took the seat across the desk from her, like some office-y shadow of that police interrogation room.
“Twenty three, fifty-something I think.″ Answered Jane.
The man frowned at her uncertainty, surprised she didn’t know the year.
“I hadn’t been there very long. I was in 2021 then some other time hundreds of years later. Then I was in the police station and then here.″
The man looked at a tablet computer, bringing back more memories of the police station only half an hour ago.
“Yes. I am very sorry about this. We had a solar flare. We think it set off an electrical surge and threw off the system calibration. We missed our target time by a few months it looks like, maybe half a year at the outside.″
“What were you aiming for?″ asked Jane.
“Your file just gives a date, hour and minute. You told me before you went in that you always reset to that exact same moment. You said it meant a lot to you. I am really, very sorry that we missed it. There will be compensation of course.″
She wondered if they would lock her up when they worked out they had a Jane who had done a crime but not yet done the time. Presumably some past Jane had gone to prison. Did that mean she was off the hook? Was that fair?
“I feel sick″, Jane said.
“Don’t worry. That is just the Coriolis, you haven’t adapted yet to spin gravity.″
“Sorry, I am giving you this in all the wrong order. The current year is 1321 PD—Post Departure″, he looked at his tablet, “that puts it about 5,700 AD. You are aboard the space habitation Derbyshire 4. For context Derbyshire 4 is one of several million habitats orbiting the star Groombridge.″
Jane hadn’t yet adapted to one future but now she was in another, far more distant one. At some point thousands of years after her arrest some iteration of Jane had enrolled in a colony program.
As the first step of interstellar travel, she had been given a lethal injection. Then her corpse had been liquefied and sealed in a tin can. The resulting slop had cruised through the void between stars for a thousand years. Her remains either frozen by the cold of interstellar space, boiled by the heat of the atomic rockets or a bit of both depending on where on the ship they were stowed.
Then, on arrival at the star system Groombridge, a redaction machine had whirred to life. Hundreds of years of being frozen porridge was wound backwards and the Jane that had sat in a clinic back on Earth awaiting the lethal injection had awoken at Groombridge. Instantaneous interstellar travel, at least subjectively.
The planetoids of Groombridge were no good for living, nor had anyone thought they might be. They were small and airless, their feeble gravities insufficient to hold even the lightest breath of atmosphere. These same gravities were also what made them valuable, their shallow potential wells meant no great effort was needed to harvest them. They gave up their iron, silicon and water ice without resistance. With these commodities the colonists built artificial homes. Spinning cylinders with gravity, warmth, sunlight and all the comforts of home. They had hundreds of acres of “land″ per head, an abundance that Jane gathered would make the poor sardines back in the Sol system green with envy.
They did not lock Jane up.
She found that she was a celebrity of some kind. Maybe even an informal leader. She came from Sol, unlike the great majority of the population who had been born at this end. This alone afforded a certain cachet. She was seen as one of the pioneers, seen almost like the American pilgrim fathers had been back in Jane’s time.
On top of that she was the only person in Groombridge with a birth pre-2,000 AD date of birth (if barely). Her last few iterations seemed to have made this into a career. She had done videos, interviews, lectures and after dinner speeches. People were electrified by the thought that she had been born in the same millennium as Napoleon Bonaparte and William the Conqueror.
Initially Jane was too busy adapting to the world around her to give much time to her guilty conscience. But eventually it returned. Her near-confession returned to her throat, choking her so much she sometimes hyperventilated. Her stomach would sink when she thought about how she had gotten away with it. The guilt increased until at last she sought out a police station to hand herself in.
A chirpy young policeman was happy to take her into his office to talk. He offered her a selection of hot drinks and biscuits. A lump caught in Jane’s throat as she tried to say what had happened. In the end she handed the policeman the confession she had intended to read out.
The young man started reading with a frown. He swallowed nervously on finishing it and handed it back without making eye contact.
“Miss, the authorities back on, what was the name of the Habitat?″
“Right. Wait? Like, Earth, Earth? The planet?″ the policeman let out a breath in awe. “Well that is way out of our jurisdiction.″
“But, I had already been arrested. I was about to admit it! I just needed a few more minutes...″
“We can’t arrest you for a crime you claim to have committed thousands of years ago in another solar system.″ said the policeman with a serious smile. “We can check your records if you like. When you pioneers came out here they brought everything written about any of you for the psychographic engineering.″
He typed and clicked a little at a computer. Then invited her around to look at the screen.
“See, look. Sentence served. You plead guilty and served your time.″ he pointed at some notes on his screen, “They let you out early for good behaviour on the condition you agreed not to redact the sentence away.″
“But I did!″ said Jane. “There was a solar flare. They got the times wrong. They sent me back to before I had done the sentence.″
“It doesn’t matter, miss. We have been outside the jurisdiction of …″ he scrolled down the form and pointed, “The United … Oh wow!″ he turned back to look at her, “You lived in a Kingdom?!′
Jane could practically see the battlements and knights in the policeman’s eyes.
The policeman was happy to show Jane how to access her personal records about her previous lives. Looking them over she learned that ever since 2351 every single iteration of Jane had started her new life from some time a few days after leaving prison. They had all kept the sentence, they had chosen to hand it down the chain for millennia even after it was no longer required. Almost every Jane to have ever existed remembered living out that spell in prison.
Until now. She did not. The first in thousands of years. Those memories were gone now. No future Jane would have them ever again.
She reflected on this on her walk home. The route felt strangely like the towpath back home. The horizon wasn’t right obviously, instead of vanishing into the distance it reared up, looped over and joined up with the horizon behind. It wasn’t a canal she walked beside, it was a floor-window. A big piece of glass (or more likely some futuristic clear material) that allowed the bright light of Groombridge into the habitat. With the spinning, the light was very inconstant, turning smoothly between illumination from above, in front, below and behind. Yes the window wasn’t at all a canal, but somehow the path along its edge felt like the towpath.
It was approaching the time Jane thought of as “midnight″. The time when the sun (technically star) was below Jane’s feet. No “daylight″ came from above, but the canal seemed to catch fire. The prismatic glass directed the light upwards, to illuminate the people on the cylinder’s far side. The refractions the glass made were designed for them. The golden, fire-like glow Jane saw was just the inefficiency.
A few minutes later “midday″ spun around. The windows on Derbyshire’s far side glowed bright above Jane’s head and sunlight came streaking down through the trees. The “canal″ was black, apart from the stars. So many stars, the Milky Way floating in the canal.
This place certainly had its charms thought Jane. Before catching herself in the thought. Is that who she was? Someone who would just shrug, move on and enjoy the space palace?
She balled her fists and stamped on the gravel. So ridiculously unlucky! A solar flare, what the hell were the chances of something like that?
But then she realised, it wasn’t unlucky. It was almost to be expected. She had been redacted, who knew, maybe a hundred times since leaving prison. Every single Jane iteration chose redaction over cremation. She would keep repeating, again and again. It would not end until some disaster put her body beyond recovery or human civilisation collapsed. It was practically a certainty that an accident would take place eventually.
It took time for Jane to decide that life was not a perfect story. Those missing memories, that sentence served, was gone. Besides, she should strive to in some sense be better than her previous selves. Not universally better by all metrics, that was too high an aim. But she should do something they hadn’t, otherwise what was the point of her?
This moment felt like an epiphany. A moment of clarity. She could step out into this world about which she knew so little and she could prosper. That seemed like a good attitude to have at the start of a new life. Maybe she should check the time to record this moment for future …
This time the sharp transition barely came as a shock, and wasn’t unwelcome.