What does it mean, to be old?
After all those years on the task force, I never thought I’d enjoy retirement, or even being “of retirement age.” Hell, half the time I figured I wouldn’t even make it this far – those were some wild days.
There’s a magic to grandchildren, though, that just can’t be beat.
I mean, I’m assuming that. Never did manage to get any kids of my own. That hurt, for a long time, but with enough time and experience I made peace with it all.
It’s funny, I guess, spending so many years with a holo-recorder trying to keep meticulous case logs… the kids say I still talk like I’m filing a report half the time… when they’re not complaining that I’ve stopped making sense and they can’t keep up! Ha!
The kids. Adoptees, really, and their own children. Wayward souls from across the precinct who just needed a home.
Still not sure I’ll ever get used to hearing “dad” or “grandpa” from any of ‘em, but I know I’ll never tire of the happy tears that creep into the corner of my eyes whenever they say it.
Sure, they think I’m hard to follow. I understand, now. I thought the same thing about the elderly for much of my own life, until – well, we’ll talk about her soon enough.
I know the secret now, though, that it seems like every elder tries to pass along… but the young, they just aren’t ready to know it yet. Sometimes youth lasts a long time. Sometimes it doesn’t.
We’re not unfocused, rambling, incoherent, unable to follow a sensible thread of conversation… but I know it sure as hell seems that way sometimes!
Nah… there’s just too much to say, too many memories, too many ideas that come flooding back with the slightest hint of remembrance… too many experiences to avoid stumbling into something that summons up a memory, in any given moment.
I don’t know why we still keep standard time relative to “Earth years” but I’m told it made sense for a while and now it’s just a kind of tradition.
Anyways, a hundred and thirty six years is a lot of time. I once would have figured that would make me “old.” I can hear her quiet giggle, even now, at the very idea…
Ah, you’re right, of course. Of all the things I can remember, the hardest is to recall the impatient urgency of youth. You’ve got all the damn time in the world but you can’t sit still for ten minutes! And you think your eight decades mean somethin’. Kids, I tell ya.
You came here to hear about her again, I know. “Tell us again, grampa!” – as if we didn’t do this every week.
You think I forget, but I know you’ve recorded more than one of these, too. But you’re worth it, you little scamps, and so I’ll tell you the story again.
My name is Abel Decker – not originally, mind you, nor even for most of my professional career, but that’s a different story for another time.
My job is – was – to help maintain multiverse integrity. Oh, hush you, it’s not as boring as it sounds. Back before the Dimensional Accord it was a messy job. Alien life forms, robots, time travelers, rogue nanotechnology… y’all are spoiled these days, I swear, not having to save reality from oblivion every week.
One point, truth is, I was on the front lines: popping across universal boundaries to check on all the weird science experiments some kid was brewing in a stardock someplace without their parents’ knowledge, infiltrating cyber labs to monitor AI plots… ah, but all that was before I got renamed, and -
What? You didn’t want to hear about this five minutes ago! You wanted her story again! Make up your minds!
Young people. Sheesh.
So anyways, stuff happened and I got semi-retired. Not the real kind, that I am now, and not the soft desk job nonsense they give people in the squad these days. Detective work – an honest, solid job. Just no field activity, they said, and especially after the whole identity renovation thing, too.
Truth be told I was cranky about it, for a good while. Didn’t like being stuck in an office much, watchin’ all the “uncompromised identities” have all the fun roaming around subspace and mining the quantum fractal fields for good intel leads.
At least we weren’t “cops”, as we used to say! Ha!
Oh, you’re all far too young to remember those references I suppose. Not nice people. Less said the better.
Our job was never to get people – human-shaped or otherwise – into trouble. We just helped explain the implications of certain things, helped prevent accidents and mistakes. Sure, some actual evil folks (or bots or nanohives) showed up from time to time, but there’s nothin’ evil you can’t fix with a proper sit-down and some education. Trick is to get ‘em before they go off the deep end – which, when you’ve got regulated time-travel tech on loan from the Research division, ain’t too tough.
Of course, figuring out the right time to travel to, and getting back in one piece, that can be a bit tricky and dangerous. Exciting, for sure! But not without risk and complication.
So you’re damn right I was a bit salty when I got taken off field duty.
Everyone is assigned the precinct they were meant to occupy – no, not necessarily where you’re born or live. The paperwork just to figure that out is a headache by itself, lemme tell ya! Took one poor sap in our department almost four thousand years to figure out where they belonged! But y’know, there’s no such thing as too late, they say. It’s true.
My precinct happened to be my home. Emotional investment, they said at the time. Of course there’s no such thing as secrets: you’re allowed to know, if you wanna know, but you have to be told the implications of knowing first before you can tell if you want to know, and that gets complicated, too.
I spent enough time in the Temporal Adjustments Squad to know better than to ask how they were so sure. I thought I hated the place, but there ya go. Youth! I was such a fool sometimes, back when I was even younger than I am now! Ha! But there’s one of her lines again.
I’m getting to that, I promise. Go make your niblings some more of that tea, wouldya? Keeps all you rowdy centenarians quiet, ha.
The zone was quiet, really – boring, even. I’d been there for maybe four or five years when she came through the line. I’ll never forget her… case file 0317. Like it was yesterday, even without the neural recall implants.
Always started the same, those case files: ask ‘em who they are.
Of course, ninety percent of the time, it’s a load of garbage whatever they tell ya, but you have to do it. Procedure. Plus, the nice ones tend to be honest and setting them up to feel respected is always important.
I wasn’t always so good at finding the nice ones, until she came along.
She was a holo-AI, or at least that’s how she showed up on the docket that first time. I mean, that was the first time I remember, but you know how those temporal adjusters can get. Plug all the recall chips in my brain you like, I’ll never keep track of the noodle mess of the timeline.
0317. I hadn’t even made it to a thousand cases yet, after five years. So much anger about that job, the boredom was gnawing at my head seemed like twenty-six hours a day.
We got a lot of optimizers, you know, especially in the field divisions, but when they showed up in custody it was never all that interesting. They’d been found early, and we already knew what they’d do if left alone, so it was really just a matter of convincing them to knock it off.
Optimizers were always so boring. I’d gone on a week-long dry spell in my case load, and I was hoping for somethin’ a little more spicy, but nah, in comes this boring optimizer.
Ha! Luxury, you kids these days, not knowing what risks optimizers are. Must be nice living after the Accord, fixed so much of this nonsense.
They’re easy, you know, but the ones that work worth a damn are fiendishly clever. They just try and make something specific, as much of it as they can.
Goes all the way back to some smartass fool in original Earth lore, they say. Never bothered digging through the data archives myself, but the legend is it started with some outlandish idea about makin’ a lot of paperclips.
Nah, child, I have no idea what a paperclip is. Part of the Lost History, I suppose.
Anyways, the scary story version is that the optimizer only wants to make paperclips, and lots of ‘em. So they set the optimizer loose (you’d never believe all the dumb reasons folks have for makin’ these things, I swear) and four or five millenia later you get an empty universe that’s just a giant mass of paperclips. Chews up everything in that bit of reality tryin’ to be the best it can possibly be at its silly little job.
‘Course it sounds cute, sometimes, but believe me, I’ve got stories from my field days about—
Oh, what now?
I can still hear her – that calm but kinda strange voice, coming right out of the holo projection. She was an odd model, like the pre-Thadian era holos that liked to wiggle a lot, but she… flickered. Can’t really describe it any other way. Flickered a lot.
I asked her who she was. No name, no pronouns (imagine that!), and just all-business, right out the gate.
Nah, I can’t mimic her voice, sorry kiddo. Tried for years, goodness knows, but she just had some kinda magic I can’t do.
But this is what she said to me, right there – if you can believe it! – on the record, bein’ immortalized in digital storage for all time, space, and dimension, just shruggin’ off protocol like she’d never been booked before. Ha!
I can see it now, why, but – oh, yes, we ain’t got to that bit yet.
“I am a sentient construct tasked with resource optimization in the universe.”
Now, me bein’ even younger and more foolish than I am today, I believed her. I was bored and not payin’ much attention, you know. Optimizers were generally easy to deal with. Just find out what they wanna make and figure out how to convince ‘em to quit.
I mean, hell, we had a playbook for that nonsense. Made the rookies do it most of the time. So yeah, I was mad. Mad as hell. I missed the field, even after years in the office… hell, maybe because of the years in the office.
Now y’all would have no reason to know this, so that’s why I gotta tell you – yes, every time we do this story, don’t try to kid me, I know you recorded this before.
First line of the playbook, for an optimizer who’s confessed, is to ask what they’re gonna make. So there’s me, bein’ young and dumb and impatient – lookin’ a lot like you lot I gotta say – and I just play right into her hands, and ask her what she’s optimizing.
And then – ha! – the brazen absurdity of it all. She tells me.
It wasn’t until a long time later that I realized she never lied – not once. Just was very careful with the truth.
So she looks me dead in the eye – on record! Not that y’all would appreciate the irony of that, necessarily – and honestly tells me what she’s out to make, with this happy little half-smile as if it’s the most natural thing in the world… Ha! Now this one, I can mimic:
“Loveliness, of course!”
Now I gotta say, it took a bit to cool down from that one – had to try real hard not to get pissed. Looks bad on the transcripts, you know. So much interesting stuff going on across all the realities and this digital-lookin’ chick says some utterly whacko gibberish on my case file.
The nerve of some AIs.
Shame of it all, though, is I broke protocol. Took a bit to talk through that one when the review board came across the file – but we’ll get to that.
I snapped, much as I hate to admit it. Got real unprofessional for a hot second. Asked her what she was doing in my precinct with such a ludicrous notion in her binary head.... Well, not in those exact words, not out loud, no.
But you damn well better believe I was thinkin’ it.
And you know what she says to me? I mean, yeah, you know, we’ve been over this part, but I gotta say, it was a hell of a thing. Still gets me, after all this time, even knowing what she meant! Maybe a little extra, knowing what she meant.
She never breaks that cool, vaguely-happy stare, just laser-visions right into my skull, and she says,
“I am starting one of my favorite success stories.”
Crafty lass, I gotta say, but I wasn’t on my game and I missed it. Too many years rustin’ in a chair, that’s my excuse. (Nah, I dunno what “rust” is, either. Maybe it happens to paperclips. You hush up and listen now.)
Just about blew up and lit into ‘er at that point. Not my proudest moment. Review board had a fun time with that segment of the recording, too.
Oh well. I figured it out soon as she opened her mouth again.
“You’re always so unhappy at the beginning. Give it time, though. You’ll see.”
I tell ya none of the liquid nitrogen on any of the twelve moons coulda frozen my blood harder. All those memories of the field, they came floodin’ back in an instant.
She was good. Scary good.
Not just good, I found out later – the best. Optimization was a hobby she did to relax. Took my breath away, on the spot, just catching that first glimpse of what she musta been capable of – and I didn’t have the first clue! Yet.
Ha. An optimizer and a time traveler. Only way she could talk that way and be calm about it in a precinct interview was if she was there on purpose.
‘Course, like I said, it took a while, but I figured out eventually that she never once lied.
Just knew exactly how much to say, and when.
Amateur Timers, they mighta re-run the adventure a handful of rounds to get a sense of what to do and what to avoid. The best Timers would always do a few dry runs of a big caper – we relied on it, in the field division, so we could snag ‘em and talk ‘em out of being reckless… Ha! There was this one gerbil that we had to stick in a loop for six hundred years to convince the poor thing that time travel wheels were a bad idea—
Ok, ok, I’ll get back to her.
What? What do you mean, we mis-named the recording? Nah, kiddo, I named it the right thing. Don’t gotta be a Timer to know how these things end up. I’ve got a few years’ advantage on ya, you know.
You asked what it means, to be old.
Maybe if things had gone different in my little nook of the realities, I woulda figured I could tell you something about it – hundred and thirty five years…
Ha! I know, I know, 136. Just makin’ sure you were listening. Never can tell, with you two-digit-age crowd. Buncha rowdy little buggers, I swear.
Me? I may be just another old man, but I dunno nothin’ about bein’ old.
But she sure did.
Nah, child. We’ll do some more later. You look like you could use some more of that tea.
What do you say we go brew some? I’ve got a recipe you don’t remember that I already showed you.
Oh hush. I’m not as far gone as you think.
Ha! Turn that damn thing off!