YEAR: 2450 LOCATION: THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS
Proceedings of the International Criminal Court, The Hague, Netherlands. Case Number: ICC-23/03-01/23 Witness: Ben Holt Prisoner number (UN detention Unit): EU23M5718
Evidence submission: Audio journal transcript (redacted) covering period of time travel to year 2450 under command of the United Nations Inter-Generational Peace and Discovery (UNIPAD) Mission.
29 April 2023
I think I can hear them. In slickly lit meeting rooms deep inside the UN compound, over the reliable hum of strip-lights, cutting through clipped military briefings and earnest psychologists coaching us for the mental shock, I can hear crowds. They occupy my mind. I imagine the rhythmical, euphoric swell of people waiting for a world-changing event. No one else can hear it. They think it’s just the guts of the building churning air, cleaning water, firing messages around the fiber-optics. But I swear it’s there.
There are fifty of us. Twenty-five people like me, selected to represent Earth at some point in the future, and the twenty-five scientists we’re partnered with, the people with the technical knowledge to get us back if anything goes wrong.
My partner is Tam McKenzie. Former military special operations, a stack of Master’s degrees and a PhD in physics. Seems to look down on us mere mortals, given he can kill you with his bare hands then publish a paper on the physics of the attack and the repercussions in hyperspace caused by quantum entanglement. But if you are going to be hurled into the future with anyone, he seems like a nice enough bloke.
01 May 2023
It’s today. Today and a day in 427 years. We will arrive in 2450 instantaneously, apparently. I don’t feel nerves. They have designed the final checks and briefings to keep us busy…
[REDACTED] It wasn’t instantaneous. My watch moved one second as we stepped from 2023 to 2450 but… it is hard to explain. I was pulled apart and reconstructed. One second later but an eternity had passed. We are now standing in a chaotic wasteland of withered trees and sharp splinters of concrete... People are coming. They advance cautiously, spooked. There’s nervous aggression to their movements as they surround us. They look bizarre, costumed in a clutter of broken electronics scraped and strapped into monstrous masks and insectile body armor. They thrust spears and brandish bows and arrows. The sky tumbles overhead, it looks bruised and only a weak dusk-light makes it through the clouds. It doesn’t look heathy Did we geo-engineer the atmosphere and poison it? I sniff the air to sense it -- animal instinct twitching my nose. But the suit I’m wearing intervenes, cleans the air, tastes and tracks the atmosphere, a deluge of symbols scrolling across the edge of my vision. What do we look like, in these iridescent helmets, oxygen tanks, the stark white suit a blazing contrast to the grubby costumes of these people? We must look like gods. “Don’t move,” orders Tam. “They’re right on the edge. I don’t want running through with one of those rusty stabbers.” I don’t move. The people circle nervously. One stamps forwards, jabs, darts back; more to show bravery to the others than to harm us but it is enough: Tam responds. He punches buttons on his wrist and his suit blazes into light, bright LEDs tracing the seams, pulsing through an aggressive display. He strikes a messianic pose, arms outstretched, head thrown back. His voice leaps through the speakers in the helmet, loud and distorted with echo:
“Do not fear me unless you mean us harm! Do not attempt to attack or control us! We come from your past to see our future!”
Has he been practicing this? This wasn’t in any of the briefings I’d been to.
“Take me to your leader!” Take me to your leader? Are you kidding me?!
It has an immediate effect. The mob fall back in a babble of shrieks. One drops their weapon and sprints for the horizon, running over unnatural-looking mounds sunk under scrubby brush and broken trees.
“What the hell are you doing?” I hiss.
“They need to fear us,” is all he says. Then he snaps out a weapon and blasts a stunted tree into splinters. That has an immediate effect too.
What else can I do? I follow them. The people caper ahead, gesturing us down a rough path and making a great show of removing debris and holding back branches. Tam has done something to the lights so they pulse to the end of his limbs when he points a gloved hand or stamps a foot. The brightness slices open the gloom and haloes him in splendour, which I suspect might be the look he’s going for.
I catch glimpses of shadows scuttling about, deep in the gloom of the undergrowth. Animal-like but not animal; mechanical, some instinct coded deep in my genes says.
The agitation of our hosts escalates as we approach a lip of rock. We clamber over and stop – a huge building dominates the sky. Lights flicker up-and-down the structure. A door slides open. Our guides evaporate into the murk. Tam moves…
What looks like a 300-kilo robot crab is waiting. It scuttles off down a dank corridor and we follow. The suit tells me the temperature climbs as we go deeper into the building, systems kick in to cool my skin and clean the air. More crabs clatter into formation, in front and behind.
“What is this?” I ask.
“This is where the power is now,” Tam says.
We are in a vast chamber. Lights pulse up the ribs of the building, disappearing above us then reappearing around our feet to chase sky-ward.
“I was expecting you. I have been waiting.
And I am the Boss, El Surprimo, Numero Uno and all that jazz. My Super Pac secured the votes and I control the workers. My parliament is for Life. My reincarnation is secure for eternity. I am number one pop star on this planet, baby,” a voice rattles off. I think the voice is the building.
Tam thinks and then replies: “Numero Uno, the Big Kahuna. Can I have your autograph?”
The lights pulse a satisfied warm yellow; they seem to change with the mood of the speaker. Tam’s suit mimics the colour.
I click to a secure channel between our helmets. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I think it’s some kind of AI. The sensors are showing a massive energy source and huge computing power in this building. It leeches out beyond the walls though, like it has roots. It’s biological, not machine.” Tam fires back.
“But… it’s talking gibberish.”
“It’s hundreds of years old. I think it’s scrambled its data with all the media and movies humans left encoded all over the Earth and in the cloud before whatever collapse happened here. It’s awesome. It’s powerful. And no one on this planet can understand how it works...except me.”
“But is it mad?”
“It’s powerful.” He pauses, head cocked like he’s listening: “It says it runs hundreds of thousands of slaved bots, out in the wilds still farming and extracting raw materials. The people are terrified of it… they trade the metals and plastics they can grub out of the old civilisation’s bones. Imagine what we could do together… we could rule this planet.” He tails off in an awed whisper.
That’s when I started to worry.
Running. Sprinting. Hurtling through clawing thickets and scrambling over smashed concrete chunks sunk under stinking moss. Feet pounding, heart pounding. Terrified. The AI building blazes behind me, angry red pillars of light blistering its sides. Robot crabs – some terrible mutation of the agri-bots – spill out the gaping doorway which frames Tam, lit up like some evil Christmas decoration my dumbfounded brain tells me, and a manic laugh escapes the fear. The fierce, frenzied detritus-clad people spring over a ridge, stark silhouettes scratched into the reddening clouds.
I stagger back into the clearing where the time portal sits, it’s pearlescent bubble bulging out from a doorframe. Frantically I mash the controls. I am trained for this. I can do this. I fumble, reset, start the sequence again.
A spear slices past my head, splinters the mechanics of the portal so it flickers, fails, vanishes.
“Stop him!” Tam is screaming. “Stop him!”
The emergency device! I pummel the button on my wrist. A portal swells and glows, opens, I lunge in. Eternity.
“He burnt the boats! He burnt the boats,” was all I could say when they found me, foetal, shocked, streaked with green smears and blood. “Conquistador. He’s a conquistador.”
News has spread about how badly this has gone wrong. One man now controls humanity’s future. He is out there, a dictator, ruling everyone’s descendants. It is terrifying.
I can hear them now, the crowds. They’re real and they’re angry, tearing at the chain-link fences, scuffling with terrified peacekeepers, burning government buildings, looting. The noise swells and rips at the walls. I can hear them; I can hear them...
Ben Holt is Global Lead for Strategic Foresight for The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). He also is a visiting professor at the Cambridge University Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) and a member of the Association of Professional Futurists.