All Stories, Science Fiction

Has Your Universe Been Hacked by Matt Zandstra

Has something gone horribly wrong? Are you beset by the inexplicable certainty that unknown agents have broken history and plunged you into a new and malign reality? Does every day lead you ever further from the path you expected to follow? If you answered yes to any of these questions, there’s a good chance that your universe has been hacked.

First of all, remain calm. The aftermath of a hack event is disorienting. There are, however, various practical steps available to you. This document will walk you through your options.

IMPORTANT: Immediate Threat

If you are currently in imminent danger of death or injury you should STOP READING THIS NOW and refer immediately to the companion leaflet, No, Seriously, Beam Me Up, which deals with emergency extraction.

Still here? Good.


Detecting a Hack

The concept of the right path, of an absolutely clean and predictable sequence of causes and effects, is, of course, a fiction. Furthermore, your world has already left the realm of historical record as we understand it. By your very presence there, you have altered your target timeline. This is especially true for experimental missions. The fallout from a hack event, though, is often distinguished by overblown comic or apocalyptic effects.

Your work likely involves making small, largely benign, changes–a political party boosted here, an influential YouTuber assassinated there–just enough to test a hypothesis or seed further research. So, if you wake up one morning to discover your host nation in the grip of an alien death cult or its government crewed by genetically-engineered pig people, you can be sure that others are making their own, much less judicious, alterations.

Every mission environment has an expected evolutionary range–the so called ‘golden path’. Here are some common signs that your timeline has strayed (See It’s All Gone Hatstand: A Practical Typology of the Weird Farp et al):

Talking beasts and statues.

Mythical creatures and fictional races made flesh including–but not limited to–elves, orcs, Hellenic and Norse gods, hobbits, ents, goblins.

On 21st Century social media: conspiracy theories, automated manipulation of public opinion, increasingly abstract memes.

The appearance of magic systems and their corresponding adepts.

Outlandish election, plebiscite or referendum results (especially when reproduced across multiple jurisdictions).

Nazis (or, in the case of early to mid-20th century missions, the absence of Nazis).


Finding the Source

In order to cleanse future branches we must identify the locus of any attack. For this reason, before you call for extraction, you should trace the hack symptoms back to their first cause.

Be conservative about this. Generally, everything has been going wrong for a long time. Follow the trail too greedily and you’ll end up grappling with the Black Death or the sack of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Even outlier events have traceable in-universe provenance. This is because a destabilising action must, nonetheless, take place within what our own Professor Lockheath likes to call the wider context of fucked-upness.

An adversary may have intervened in your timeline to magnify a fringe religion, for example (see The Jedi Genocides, Williams and Farp). While there will be a local originating cause, the attack must nonetheless rely upon a social, economic and cultural context for its effects. So although Extreme Fictionalists manipulated the rise of a Jedi fundamentalist movement in Timeline 47709, this action was only only possible thanks to the popularity of a moving picture from the mid-1970s, an antecedent Japanese movie, the cultural influence of cinema, the rise of the leisure society in the context of post-War prosperity, the agrarian and industrial revolutions and so on and on. Look, where possible, for active local interventions in preference to historical enabling conditions.

Nevertheless, be aware that, in rare cases, antagonistic interventions can have been made before your arrival, so a thorough search for schism may need to take a historical turn. Be on the look out for the usual array of unexpectedly assassinated dictators, improbably re-emergent prophets, anachronistic deities.

Pre-arrival hacks are now extremely rare, however, as they require the replacement of a timeline in our system before an operative’s insertion. Since the Disney Gods debacle, our pre-deployment security has improved considerably.

It is most likely, therefore, that any malicious intervention will have occurred during your tenure. What is the most significant divergence from expected development within this period? Remember, the golden path always tends towards plausibility. Radical implausibility is your best guide.

Once you have located your point of schism, it is time to decide how to proceed.


Option A: Ignore the Hack

For some highly specific studies you might ignore the hack altogether. If your timeline seems likely to remain free of species-ending calamities for a decade or so, research into fashion, social mores, sexual behaviour, technological development and so on might fruitfully continue even as governments dissolve around you and sudden cults arrive to invest cartoon characters as gods. Please don’t forget to report your findings, though. See You Never Phone: Seven Communication Protocols.


Option B: Fight the Hack

Restoration of the golden path is a second, more difficult, mode of persistence. This is, of course, an extremely long shot. It may be worth trying, nonetheless, if you have already invested signifant effort in your timeline. You have very little to lose, after all. The world is very likely burned at this point so there’s not much damage you can do. In short, nothing matters there anymore.

Broadly speaking, intervention can take two forms:

Honest activism

Terrorism, extortion, manipulation

Activism is a long game and one best left to the natives of your world.

Nefarious manipulation can have more immediate results, though the likelihood of an extremely unintended consequence is very high. If you would like to intervene with bribery, violence, or other direct action please see the companion leaflet Who’s the Daddy? Taking Over Your Timeline. Good luck with that strategy and have fun!

However you tackle the hack, sooner rather than later you’ll likely wind up at Option C.


Option C. Call for Extraction

It always comes to Option C in the end. Look in your entry kit for your extraction protocol keys. You will need to make your exit phrase obvious to our observers by posting it to a conspicuous forum. For 21st Century travellers, social media will suffice. Pre-internet operatives will have been provided with a suitable signal medium. Common conduits include lonely hearts columns, religious pamphlets, manuscript marginalia.

You can expect notification of your exit window within hours of inscription (always include the date to prevent a response reaching you before you send your message). The portal will be established at a remote but accessible location. It will be well-guarded by a small extraction team.

Leaving is strange and melancholy. You should prepare yourself. For months, maybe years, the stubborn physicality of your surroundings, the plausibity of the local population, the relentless wear of daily life will all have impressed themselves on you. It may seem to you that that you are abandoning reality for a half-remembered dream. This is a beguiling illusion, one you should be ready to combat.

Allow yourself a moment to appreciate your corrupted world. As you hike the cliff trail, descend to the city catacombs, slip through the vandalised doorway of an abandoned hospital, know that you are returning to the only path that matters. You are about to wake up.


What’s next?

The nice thing about the many worlds is that there are always plenty more to choose from–several are born every microsecond in fact. Once extracted, you will be fully debriefed and then reinserted into a new universe branched from your current flow at a point just before the–now neutralised–hack.

As for the universe you have left behind, there are a number of research options we may still pursue. If your mission period lies in the 21st Century, for example, and your breakage seems likely to suppress action on climate change (a surprisingly common outcome), we want to hear from you! Please contact the Terminal Analysis team who are conducting live investigations into mass extinction events, social unrest, and population decrease.

Even if the world is, in the parlance of Quality Assessment, a burner all is not lost. The governance committee may choose to open source your universe, rendering it interverse-accessible. Since the inhabitants of marginal timelines are not classed as human in the legal sense of the word, this might not be an ideal outcome for any friends you may have made during your mission. Not to worry, though. The Interverse is no longer quite the Wild West free-for-all of popular imagination. Genocide, the testing of weapons of mass destruction and industrialised sex slavery are all now actively discouraged. If you are concerned for the inhabitants of your universe, it may help to remind yourself that they are all, in fact, totally fine–in a near infinite number of closely related timelines.

Matt Zandstra

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

5 thoughts on “Has Your Universe Been Hacked by Matt Zandstra”

  1. Thank you, Mark.

    This explains something that I have suspected for a long time. And as it goes with great ideas like this one I find myself envious that I didn’t think of it first. Fun and keenly observed, well done.


  2. Wow, was I relieved when I read the last sentence! I wondered what was happening with all this chaos lately. The question remains: Who is the narrator? The ghost in the machine, or just… the machine?

    Liked by 1 person

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