Ch. LCdr. Francis was alone now with the event log, and the silver cylinder captured his attention the way a predator’s stare captures its prey’s alertness. He absentmindedly flicked his hand and the floor morphed up into a table for the log to rest on. As soon as that happened, the cylinder projected the three-dimensional avatar of an older, but still robust man who had Francis’ unmistakably intelligent eyes, straight nose, and bemused smile. Of course the avatar was not physically there, nor could it be seen with the naked eye. Instead, the avatar was a telepathic image that the event log projected into LCdr. Francis’ mind.
The avatar was standing and paused a moment to examine its surroundings. Once satisfied, he said to the younger version of himself, “As I recall, by now you’ve already figured out that I’m the avatar of your older self, and despite all my efforts to avoid it, I’m dead. I know you have a lot of questions, but I’m not here to merely satisfy your curiosity. I’m here to warn you about the danger you’re heading toward, and to ask for your help in averting it.”
The younger Francis recoiled from his avatar and gasped, “Where did you come from? When did you come from?” He took several shallow breaths until he was calm enough to say, “You’re an older me, so you must know my future. Does the Armada survive? Who is that injured man you brought with you? How…?”
“Stop! I had forgotten how relentlessly inquisitive I was at your age,” the older Francis literally said to himself. “All right, I’ll answer a few questions if it helps you focus on the bigger picture. But after that, you must swear to only listen. I’ve jury-rigged this event log to serve my purposes, but it doesn’t have enough knowledge storage to answer all your questions.
“As for why I appeared, I programmed the log drone’s event sensors to detect the first moment when you and the log are alone. When that happened, the event sensors triggered the log to play this interactive avatar. As for when, I mustn’t say. Otherwise, as that date approaches you’ll become unnaturally cautious and start second-guessing yourself, and as a result you might inadvertently create the paradox you’re trying to avoid.
“You must sense in your bones that what I’m saying is true; our field promotion came with an upgrade to our implants that gives us an intuitive sense of life-threatening paradoxes. I’ll say nothing more about that. But you’re too smart not to realize how urgently I must need to send this message to you, even in the face of my impending death and at the risk of tempting paradox.”
Although time-warriors are taught not to fear death, and despite his older self’s warning, the younger Francis couldn’t help wondering, “How will I die?” Suddenly, he stopped in mid-thought as his newly upgraded sense of paradox made him shiver. The answer to that question was taboo. Chastened, he asked instead, “What can you tell me?”
The avatar of the elder Francis said, “Even though the Enemy’s cyberattack decisively won their battle against the Grand Armada of Humanity, the Time War is not lost. There is hope. But I’ve come to warn you that two new, unexpected threats might wreck everything.
“The immediate threat is that the Enemy knows warriors from the Grand Armada survived their cyberattack and landed safely in normal time, although scattered across a few centuries. To destroy the last remnants of the Armada, the Enemy has sent suicide squads, Hunters, back in time to stalk the surviving crew members. For decades, I and other time-warriors have fought the Hunters.
“However, there’s a long term threat, too. Indigenous humans, natives from the era when you’ll land in normal time, have discovered pieces of time-war tech jettisoned from the Armada. Disguised as an archaeologist, I’ve been searching decades for any time-war artifacts that might be useful. That’s how I happened to find this event log. Normally, it wouldn’t be a problem if native humans found our technology because they couldn’t be expected to activate it, let alone use it.
“My expectations were wrong. Even as I record this warning, at least one auxiliary time-ship has been discovered, the natives have learned how to operate its most basic military functions, and are using the time-ship to kill. The possibility of indigenous humans toying with time-travel technology and accidentally damaging the past makes my sense of paradox burn like an electric shock. History must be protected from humanity, or Humanity might not survive until the era of the Time War.
“We need allies to carry on if we warriors of the Grand Armada of Humanity should happen to fall. But those allies won’t stand a chance unless they can use our time-war technology. I’ve worried about this problem for decades and thought there was no solution. That is, not until recently when I happened upon a silver-child.”
The younger Francis was surprised to hear his elder avatar use that jargon. A person only became a silver-child by accident. The artificial intelligence inhabiting a silver-mind computer module communicates telepathically, not electronically, with other modules and with humans. Consequently, people are advised to not let children in their formative years stay too near silver-mind modules for too long. If they do, they might inadvertently develop the “turn of mind” in their growing brains that is necessary to interact with psionic-based technology, but they won’t have the training necessary to maintain their sense of self when they are bombarded by the incessant onslaught of artificial minds thinking at them. Most people need cybernetic implants to cope. But a few rare people, often the very young, possess a knack for maintaining their sanity and sense of self while developing the ability to interact telepathically with psionic-based computers, robots, starships, and so on.
The avatar of the elder Francis said, “The injured man is with a colonial law enforcement agency called the New Texas Rangers, and he is a Ranger. However, he doesn’t realize he’s a silver-child, or that he’s fully able to use our psionic-based technology because, except for encountering an occasional robot or silver-mind module, he’s seldom encountered our tech. He thinks a cube of silver-mind that his father gave him as a child is just an attractive mineral to keep by his bed and use as a nightlight. The glow comforted him as he fell asleep and began to dream. Imagine! An artificial intelligence trillions of times smarter than all the people and computers on an entire planet of this era, used as a nightlight!
“As an innocent child, the boy didn’t realize his fantastic dreams were actually the silver-mind teaching him advanced science, technology, engineering, and military science. Or that other little boys didn’t normally overhear derelict robots talking to each other. He didn’t realize he could fully use our time-war technology.
“This man is the only silver-child I’ve met,” the avatar said, “but if he allies with us, he could be our salvation. He’s been critically wounded, though, by natives who found and are misusing our time-war technology. We’re indirectly responsible for the threat to the Ranger’s life, and we owe him the medical treatment he needs. I’m not… in a position… to treat him myself, but I firmly believe it’s critical we do all we can to save his life. I’ve adapted the resources at my disposal to send the Ranger somewhere he can be helped. So help him—and ultimately—ourselves.”
The younger Francis was overwhelmed by what the older Francis said, but he found the wherewithal to reassure his avatar that the injured man was being cared for to the best of the Medic’s abilities.
But something else was troubling the younger Francis, and he couldn’t look his elder self in the eye until he got it off his chest. “If I am you, and you are me,” the younger said warily, “then I can’t believe you’ve gone to all this effort on behalf of the Ranger unless you want something more.”
“You know me too well,” the elder Francis said to himself, chuckling. “Even if you save the Ranger and send him back to my present, he’ll be as helpless as a baby if no one mentors him about the Time War. And he won’t have a reason to help us if he doesn’t know what’s at stake.
“If you’re listening to this message, you know I can’t be the Ranger’s mentor because I’ve already died. But since you are me, you realize this log can be used as a two-way means of communication. You must be his mentor. Reuse this event log to record as many critical messages for the Ranger as you can about the Enemy, their time-war against Humanity, the fate of the Armada, the Hunters, and the native scavengers who’ve gotten ahold of our technology. That will be enough to trigger the Ranger’s conscious awareness of what the silver-mind has already taught him subconsciously, in his dreams. With that awareness, he’ll be able to recognize and use our technology when he sees it.
“Keep in mind, you can’t explicitly tell him anything that might cause a paradox, but you can give him general advice at critical moments. I suggest reprogramming the log’s event sensors to detect those moments and then play back whatever useful hints you have to give.
“After you’ve fitted the log with that information, program the log to ferry the Ranger back here to when and where he came from. But since this is a dangerous place, deliver him hopefully a little later and farther away from the danger. Then, if he survives his journey and hears the facts, he can decide whether to help us.”
“Stop,” the younger Francis protested to his elder self, just as his older self had protested to him earlier, “what decision? You said the Ranger was our salvation. What condition could possibly be put on our salvation from the Enemy? The Enemy has burned scores of worlds and slaughtered billions. If this man is our last hope, then I say let loose the dogs of war unconditionally!”
The younger Francis’ elder self reared back and simulated taking a deep breath while the grain of silver-mind in the event log took extra time to compute how best to explain. At last, the avatar sighed and said, “The decision pertains to something that would only trouble someone like a chaplain; someone like us. The Time War is a battle between Humanity and the Enemy; it is our fight, and ours alone. If we send the Ranger back to his epoch with knowledge to help fight that war, then we are condemning him to risking his life to fight our war.
“We can’t make that choice for him. To do so would not only be unconscionable, it calls into question what little we know about what differentiates Humanity from the Enemy. If we force the Ranger to help us, as we believe the Enemy would surely do in the same situation, are we any different than the Enemy? If we’re not, does Humanity even deserve to win the war?
“I know Humanity faces an existential threat, but I also know that we—we who are the literally the same man—are men of faith,” said the elder Francis to the younger. “We have committed our lives to a code of ethics that others sometime find difficult to understand, let alone support. But to send the Ranger back to fight our war without giving him a chance to decide whether he wants to risk his life—regardless of how much we want him to—is something neither my faith can tolerate, nor my sense of paradox can avoid screaming about in warning.
“You will have to let the Ranger make his own decision. You can’t tell anyone else, not even the XO. You must further program the log to not tell the Ranger anything about the future, or the time-war, or the information stored in the event log, until—and only until—you tell him his help is vitally important, but he will be risking his life from the moment he decides to help us.”
“You’re malfunctioning!” the younger Francis said, holding out his hands in supplication while he scoffed at the avatar’s thought processes. “Why would this strange man decide to risk his life to help us?”
“Because he’s a New Texas Ranger,” the elder chaplain said, “and helping others is what they do. Trust me, younger me, the Cosmos works in mysterious ways. Have faith that regardless of the Ranger’s decision, it will be for the good.”
When the avatar uttered those last words, he stood up straight, stared into the distance and then slowly disappeared. In the younger Chaplain Francis’ mind, an incorporeal voice from the event log said, “End of message. No further data available.”
Ch. LCdr. Francis stared in wonder at the slender cylinder that was the event log; at the device that was so small, and yet carried the possibility of both hope and disaster. “The Cosmos works in mysterious ways,” he muttered, and then with faith and a prayer, he began to reprogram the event log for its journey home.