Sonic Interchange

Chronogram

Bale thought it was a hazing ritual. A joke of some sort, played by upper management to tease the new staff about their new responsibilities. "You will keep this on you at all times. You will report to room 25-C if it ever activates. No assignment or duty takes priority over responding." All super serious, almost comically so. He wasn't to keen on being the new recruit who falls for it, but like any good intelligence worker he played along to see what he could learn. He took the security fob and carried it on his keychain, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there was no follow-up. In the three years Bale had been at the agency, enough real-world intrigue had crossed his desk to dissolve his vigilance in the matter. Whatever prank it had been a part of had failed, or misfired, or was aborted, and he was left with an unspent remainder. Even the agents who gave it to him had moved on to other things, or at least Bale hadn't seen them around in a while. Whenever he'd think about removing the token and resigning it to a drawer somewhere, he'd recall the whole rigmarole and chuckle to himself about playing along just a bit longer. At this point, it was such a mainstay on his ever evolving keychain full of fobs, tokens, and other security badges, that it gave him a strange sense of comfort. When it started vibrating, on a windy Thursday that was otherwise hard to distinguish from the rest of the week, Bale's first thought was "Wow, the batteries still work!" That was the last stress-free thought Bale would ever get to have, unfortunately.

"Juila, it's Bale. Listen, a long time ago when I started here I was given a security fob with TMA inscribed on it. Do you have one of these?"

"TMA? No, I don't have any TMA fobs. Who's TMA?" Julia responded. She'd been a mentor to Bale, having arrived at the agency a few years ahead of him. She spoke with a measured caution that came from experience in the profession of keeping secrets.

"Honestly? I don't even remember now. It was like my first week in the office, so many logos and acronyms to pick up."

"Do you remember any protocol for it?"

"Yeah, go to room twenty-"

"Bale! Need to know!"

"Sorry. But yes, there's a location to go if it activates."

"And?"

"It just activated. Three years of nothing, I thought it was dead."

"So you know the protocol, and you've just met the trigger. Are you calling me to ask if you should follow protocol?"

Her no-nonsense rebuke was no surprise, but it shook Bale. Her talking about it like standard protocol gave him perspective. This was a protocol. It was serious, and he had a duty to respond. As he put on his shoes and took the elevator to the parking garage, the words "No assignment or duty takes priority" echoed through his mind. If this wasn't a prank, those words weren't picked lightly, and they sank into his stomach to boil. What hell was this security fob leading him into?

--

For all his growing unease, the entrance to room 25-C was unremarkable. No security detail, no cameras, just one of the hundreds of smaller meeting rooms scattered around the campus. Hearing light chatter inside, Bale knocked on the door. An agent appeared to answer.

"I'm Agent Hetta, I'm here for.. the TMA protocol?" Bale said, holding the still buzzing fob up like a badge, unconvincingly.

Without missing a beat, door opened. "Ah yes, we've all got one of those, no need to wave them about for everyone to see. Come in, come in." The man at the door was in his mid-40's, which made him feel almost ancient compared to the academy-fresh faces Bale usually worked with in the agency. He had the demeanor of a data geek, the kind the agency kept in the backrooms to channel their brainpower without the need for nuance and subtly demanded of field agents. The kind of person who is so proud in having the answers that they might not care to think about who's asking the question. "It's probably good you're here. Do you know why?"

"Not exactly." Bale responded.

"Then you're in the same boat as the rest of us. You're about the tenth person to show up, and now you know almost everything I do." The man gave Bale a look begging him to bite.

"Almost?" Bale asked.

"My name is Shea, but here they all call me Agent Carter. Now that we're on the same page, Welcome to Room 25-C." Shea gestured grandiosely at the stock-standard meeting room table and chairs. 

"Are you in charge?" Bale asked.

Shea cackled and said "Lord, no! The spooks here are way too smart to put a guy like me in charge. I'm just a threat analytics-"

"CARTER! NEED TO KNOW!" barked another agent across the room.

"-I uh.. I'm just a computer guy."

"Then is this just some kind of, I don't know, meet and greet?" Bale looked around the room. There wasn't much socializing happening, a couple small, quiet conversations in a room full of mostly quiet agents on the lookout for more information. Before Carter could work up a suave response, a projector kicked on and a blurred face appeared on the wall. An anonymized voice spoke out.

"T. M. A. Secure the room. T. M. A. Secure the room. 30 seconds to comply." Each agent in the room raised their buzzing security fobs, affirming their authority to be present in whatever was about to happen. They took seats around the room and turned their attention to the screen. Shea locked the door, then glanced back at Bale questioningly. Bale shrugged, unsure if physical security was part of the order or not. The countdown on the screen hit 0, and for the first time all morning his pocket wasn't buzzing away. The face unblurred, though it might as well have stayed opaque. The person on the other end of the feed looked like the result of feeding a deep-learning algorithm thousands of agency staff photos and asking it to come up with a new agent. The same careful haircut and well-fit suit that all the upper-management wear. The same stern look of command.

"Thank you for arriving. Time is short, in this case shorter than usual. Everyone in the room with you now is immediately reassigned to this task, Project Acknowledge. Your missions parameters will arrive momentarily. But before that, some important disclosures. This message is pre-recorded. With a single exception, you now make up the entirety of the chain of command for this project. Regardless of background or area of expertise, anyone in this room now is a qualified member by virtue of being here, and should be trusted to act with the full responsibility befitting the gravest duties of the agency. It is critical that you act on the following information as a team, and above all else, the following information is not to leave this room without consensus. We entrust you to bring order and civility to the process of formulating a response plan, but you are authorized to subdue anyone who attempts to leave without consensus, up to and including lethal force."

A few agents looked around, but no one showed any interest in leaving.

"You are about to receive a raw transmission from a special source. This transmission was captured after this recording session, in my future, so I cannot tell you what is in it. But before you can receive it, you need the full context. The transmission comes from the future. Not just my future, but yours too. After the Straknov-Baaja demonstration hinted at the possibility of atemporal communication, the agency began building a protocol for handling messages from other times. You, Project Acknowledge, are that protocol. We cannot know why the future is choosing to reach back now, but in the interest of self-preservation we assume it is intentional. As we do not understand the nature of non-causal actions, you must tread carefully. The degree to which the transmission is exposed is a critical part of your charter. The more people you expose to the information in the transmission, the less likely the future is to manifest in the way they sender hoped for. 

"For your own safety, there is a single mind barrier between you and the transmission. Independent of the team in your room, a specialist has been trained and prepared to function as the 'first eyes' on the transmission. In the hypothetical future where non-causal communication is being used offensively, we must not assume the transmission is intended to be safe to receive. You will soon be provided the location of the Receiving Room, where you will meet the specialist. One of your duties, collectively, is to ascertain the effects of receiving the transmission on the recipient. The specialist is knowingly taking on a role of sacrifice and service, but trusts you to consider them as contaminated once they have received the transmission. The recipient will not be informed as to your identities, your number, or any other details about you, to minimize the risk of exploiting our quarantine protocol. Contact will be limited to a simple, single light bulb with a switch for you to operate. Until the team has consensus for more robust interaction, the specialist has been trained to interpret the light turning on as a command to describe the transmission. As such, your final act before heading to the Receiving Room is to agree on how to determine consensus. 

"We cannot adequately prepare you for every possibility that lies ahead, because they are endless in number. We can only hope this protocol serves to protect the present from the future. Good luck, and may you bring us all into a new age of prosperity." With that, a small silver pill dropped from the projector and the machine whirred down to silence. The pill skittered across the table and settled near Shea. He calmly put his hand over it and addressed the room. 

"If I had to guess, this pill tells us where the Receiving Room is. I'm not a leader, but I trust in protocol in absence of authority. Before we go, we need a consensus. So I know this is kinda formal, but unless anyone objects, can we take our first vote? I propose we agree to serve in function in accordance to the will of the group as expressed by a majority vote. For now, a vote in favor will be cast by holding up our TMA fob. If you agree to these terms of consensus, please raise your fobs now." With a few cautious glances around the room, no one seemed ready to speak up in objection, and all hands raised fobs in agreement.

"Whew, OK. I don't know about you all, but that's the first time I've ever been taken seriously in a situation meeting!" Shea laughed. His resilient spirit breathed a little life into the room. He palmed the pill and held it to his eye for close inspection. "Oh, it's just some GPS co-ordinates, let's see..." After a minute of pawing at his phone, Shea announced "Aww, I was all excited for a riddle and a hunt, but this is just down the hall from here. Oh well, I guess it's more efficient. OK, room 31-F, let's move out!" The agents filed down the hall in a eerie silence that somehow felt even more oppressive than usual. Even friendly colleagues they passed were coldly ignored as they deliberately marched to the Receiving Room.

Room 31-F was an enclosed balcony overlooking what seemed to be a re-purposed surgical gallery. One way mirrors provided a view of the lower room. It was dark down there, a single exit sign light casting a soft red glow on the murky form of a person sitting at a table. One of the agents raised his fob and said "Frankly, whatever is about to happen, I just want to get on with it. Permission to turn on the light and start this?" Most hands raised fobs in response, but Bale wasn't convinced the agent bothered to count before flipping the switch.

The lights gave appearance to the specialist, seated at the desk, and to three previously unnoticed automatic gun turrets arranged around the room, pointed surely at the specialist. As surprising as they were to the agents in the observation deck, the specialist seemed to pay them no mind. She proceeded with the confidence of someone committed to their training, and without looking up at the one-way glass window, she began to talk.

"I am the specialist who will serve as the first recipient of the transmission. At the current moment, I am of sound body and mind, and I take on this role with a full understanding of the risks involved. Before I begin, all I ask is that you do not hesitate if it is clear I have lost myself. The weapons here are well equipped to permanently silence me if need arises, but I cannot activate them from here. Do not allow me to live if my body is in service of something beyond me, please. With that out of the way, let's all hope this brings us to a new age of wisdom, and if all goes well we can laugh about it over drinks tonight, my treat. OK, on to business. I will first reveal the transmission to myself. After a period of one minute, I will begin to speak. I will start with a vague description of the transmission, to explain the nature or medium it presents in and ensure we are properly equipped to receive it. I will then stop, and wait for a light signal to proceed with the actual transmission. If possible, I will dictate the transmission, or play it from any of the non-networked playback devices in the room with me. If not, I will request the appropriate equipment. To ensure there is no confusion about the end of the transmission, I will take my shoes off of my feet when I am finished and place them here on the table faced away from each other. This is a very out-of character action to express clear intent, and a test of my mental faculty. If I fail to arrange my shoes as described, you are to take that as a sign I've been compromised. Please signal me with the light to confirm you understand the procedure."

The agent at the light switch glanced around the room. "Any questions? I mean, I don't know that she can even hear us. No? We're all good? Great." He toggled the switch on an off quick enough to stir up images of cheap jump scares from the horror movies Bale liked to watch as a kid. As if his brain was daring him to imagine some demon or malcontent spirit slipping into the room in the brief moment of darkness. He rubbed his eyes and reminded himself not to let his imagination get the best of him.

The specialist, who in kind consideration hadn't named herself to them, opened a peculiar box on the table. Slightly larger than a suitcase, and clearly connected to some kind of battery. The angle of the observation deck made it impossible to see into the box, as it's open lid blocked the interior. But the glow of whatever was inside illuminated the specialists face with a scintillating mystery. For one minute, that seemed to stretch on longer than any minute had a right to, she was the only human on the planet to know what she knew. Despite that, the extensive training and preparation she went through to be in that position kept her face almost totally blank. The lack of fear on her face was only as reassuring as the lack of everything else was alarming. Agents fidgeted uncomfortably, many busied themselves with looking to their watches for a countdown.

"The transmission has arrived in text, and the text appears to be in English. I am not aware of any unusual impact from reading the transmission, and believe it to be safe to communicate to you. If you agree, toggle the lights and I will continue. Until then, I will tell you personal stories so that you may measure my behavior. When I was 8, the school I attended was partially burned down over summer break. No one was injured, so it didn't make the news. They even managed to rebuild the damaged wing before students returned in the fall. My first class was in a rebuilt room, but I didn't know it had been rebuilt. They used the same blueprints, and stocked it with the same chairs.."

"As interesting as this school story is, does anyone mind if we jump to the transmission?" asked one of the more anxious agents in the observation deck. "She looks fine, and honestly she's done her part. We don't need to make her dance for us, right?" No one seemed to be too set on hearing the end of the specialist's story, so the agent by the light toggled it off and on again. This time it felt to Bale more like opening your eyes after a long dream. Everything before was weird and silly, but now it was time for some reality.

With all eyes glued to her, the specialist spoke. "The transmission appears to be simple. It reads 'Their is no need to worry, you are doing great.' Hearing it out loud doesn't convey the full message though. I will transcribe it exactly as written on the board here." She walked to a wall, took a marker, and began spelling out the message in big letters. 'Their is no need to worry, you are doing great.' "The spelling of the first word, 'their', is not my mistake. That is exactly how the message is written. And that's all there is to it, that I can see. I'll patiently wait here until you determine what to do next."

Every agent in the room took a long, slow breath in as they each tried to figure out what to say, but Shea beat them to the punch. "I quit. I'm sorry everyone, but it's over."

The agent, who Bale recognized as the officer who reminded Shea to mind his tongue earlier, stood up abruptly. "Excuse me? After all the spook stuff this morning, and that crazy mission briefing, you got the goods and you're out?" she asked.

"Oh, no... listen. I'm all down to help. If this was like a call from the future asking us to stop eating cheese, or watch out for an asteroid or something, I'd be all over it. But.." Shea looked around the room at the unconvinced faces "Oh. You don't see it yet. OK. This really, really sucks, and I'm not great at giving bad news. But, we're doomed. Like, we're finished, game over."

"How to you figure?" Bale asked, feeling like he's missing the most obvious joke ever told. "The transmission said everything is fine."

"The future just sent us the first message back in time. This is a monumental moment, one that will be at least as well documented as when Aldrin landed on the moon, right? But they messed up. The very first word is a typo."

"So what? Aldrin messed up his speech too, and lived for a long time afterwards." Bale said.

"Yeah, but Aldrin couldn't stop everyone from listening in. Everyone knew his mistake as soon as he made it. If NASA didn't have to worry about amateur radio nerds calling them out, don't you think they would've edited the missing word into the recording before putting it out to the public? The crowning achievement of the space race marred just slightly by a misspeak, you can bet your butts the top brass wanted a do-over. Unlike NASA, that's a real possibility with our friends from the future."

An agent interjected "I may not be totally up to date on time travel theory, but if they were going to change it, wouldn't we just have received the correct message?"

Shea shook his head. "No. I mean, look, I don't know how time travel or this message from the future actually works. But there are a two main models that we theorize about. The way you're talking about is the Single Timeline theory. Time and reality is a single continuous thing, and if you jump back in time to change it, it will have always been changed. Like editing a movie. Causality is always maintained. If this future message worked that way, we wouldn't receive the typo message. As soon as the future fixes it, it will have never been a typo. If your brain is tugging at all the paradoxes this introduces, you're in good company. That's why we have another model.

Another is the Multiple Timelines interpretation. Whenever you travel back in time, you actually split reality at that time into two forks. One proceeds as always up to the point of you traveling back in time. The other starts with you arriving in the past and carries forwards from there, taking into account any changes you create. I think this message proves we're in the latter scenario."

This time it was an older agent who spoke up. "OK, I think I follow. But if they send a second 'first message' back, that just means there's a new timeline that got it right. What's so worrying about that?"

"That timeline has a future. Ours is only good until we figure out how to send messages back in time and send that one to us. The future that Future Us wants Current Us to have is the one New Timeline Us gets to have. We're the mistake timeline. Even if we keep existing, we all just got proof that we aren't the versions of ourselves fulfilling our true purpose. We aren't the versions of ourselves that the Future wants, even though it's their fault they can't type."

Faces were slowly melting into panic as Shea's explanation carried on. "Maybe they'll just let it go? If someone as smart as you is in the room, maybe they'll know better than to correct the typo?" asked an agent who hadn't quite opened the door to fear.

"They are time manipulators. I would love to believe they have our interests at heart, but if they did, they wouldn't be reaching back in time to begin with. You only send messages to the past if you want to change history. They've already sent us a message, dooming some other timeline of humans that never received it. If they've done it once, why wouldn't they do it again? We aren't any more special than the versions of ourselves in the other dead-end timeline. When your printer malfunctions and sprays ink all over a page and you have to load a new sheet of paper, do you think much of the sacrifice of the tree who's body went into the ruined page? Even if you do, does that stop you from pressing Print a second time?"

"Jeez. That's so.. ugh. I can't even explain how sick this makes me feel. What the hell should we do?" Bale asked, feeling the panic take hold in his mind.

Shea chuckled, though there was clearly no mirth behind it, and said "I don't know that it matters. I'm not sure anything we do will matter anymore, ever."

"What are you going to do?"

Shea looked around the room. He'd never imagined that a room full of agents would be looking to him for guidance like this, and now that they were, it sure didn't feel that great. "You have all made careers out of keeping secrets, maybe it's best if you keep doing that. Me? I'm going to take the specialist up on her offer, and see if a long conversation with some tall drinks can talk me out of a nine millimetre make out session. Like I said, I quit. Who's with me?"

One by one, fobs were raised one last time. Some accompanied by a laugh, some with a sigh, and more than one at then end of a hand trembling with primal fear. Then, as professionally as they could, the agents walked out of the room and tried their best not to speak of the day ever again.

Bale thought it was a hazing ritual. A joke of some sort, played by upper management to tease the new staff about their new responsibilities. "You will keep this on you at all times. You will report to room 25-C if it ever activates. No assignment or duty takes priority over responding." All super serious, almost comically so. He wasn't to keen on being the new recruit who falls for it, but like any good intelligence worker he played along to see what he could learn. He took the security fob and carried it on his keychain, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there was no follow-up. In the three years Bale had been at the agency, enough real-world intrigue had crossed his desk to dissolve his vigilance in the matter. Whatever prank it had been a part of had failed, or misfired, or was aborted, and he was left with an unspent remainder. Even the agents who gave it to him had moved on to other things, or at least Bale hadn't seen them around in a while. Whenever he'd think about removing the token and resigning it to a drawer somewhere, he'd recall the whole rigmarole and chuckle to himself about playing along just a bit longer. At this point, it was such a mainstay on his ever evolving keychain full of fobs, tokens, and other security badges, that it gave him a strange sense of comfort. When it started vibrating, on a windy Thursday that was otherwise hard to distinguish from the rest of the week, Bale's first thought was "Wow, the batteries still work!" That was the last stress-free thought Bale would ever get to have, unfortunately.

"Juila, it's Bale. Listen, a long time ago when I started here I was given a security fob with TMA inscribed on it. Do you have one of these?"

"TMA? No, I don't have any TMA fobs. Who's TMA?" Julia responded. She'd been a mentor to Bale, having arrived at the agency a few years ahead of him. She spoke with a measured caution that came from experience in the profession of keeping secrets.

"Honestly? I don't even remember now. It was like my first week in the office, so many logos and acronyms to pick up."

"Do you remember any protocol for it?"

"Yeah, go to room twenty-"

"Bale! Need to know!"

"Sorry. But yes, there's a location to go if it activates."

"And?"

"It just activated. Three years of nothing, I thought it was dead."

"So you know the protocol, and you've just met the trigger. Are you calling me to ask if you should follow protocol?"

Her no-nonsense rebuke was no surprise, but it shook Bale. Her talking about it like standard protocol gave him perspective. This was a protocol. It was serious, and he had a duty to respond. As he put on his shoes and took the elevator to the parking garage, the words "No assignment or duty takes priority" echoed through his mind. If this wasn't a prank, those words weren't picked lightly, and they sank into his stomach to boil. What hell was this security fob leading him into?

--

For all his growing unease, the entrance to room 25-C was unremarkable. No security detail, no cameras, just one of the hundreds of smaller meeting rooms scattered around the campus. Hearing light chatter inside, Bale knocked on the door. An agent appeared to answer.

"I'm Agent Hetta, I'm here for.. the TMA protocol?" Bale said, holding the still buzzing fob up like a badge, unconvincingly.

Without missing a beat, door opened. "Ah yes, we've all got one of those, no need to wave them about for everyone to see. Come in, come in." The man at the door was in his mid-40's, which made him feel almost ancient compared to the academy-fresh faces Bale usually worked with in the agency. He had the demeanor of a data geek, the kind the agency kept in the backrooms to channel their brainpower without the need for nuance and subtly demanded of field agents. The kind of person who is so proud in having the answers that they might not care to think about who's asking the question. "It's probably good you're here. Do you know why?"

"Not exactly." Bale responded.

"Then you're in the same boat as the rest of us. You're about the tenth person to show up, and now you know almost everything I do." The man gave Bale a look begging him to bite.

"Almost?" Bale asked.

"My name is Shea, but here they all call me Agent Carter. Now that we're on the same page, Welcome to Room 25-C." Shea gestured grandiosely at the stock-standard meeting room table and chairs. 

"Are you in charge?" Bale asked.

Shea cackled and said "Lord, no! The spooks here are way too smart to put a guy like me in charge. I'm just a threat analytics-"

"CARTER! NEED TO KNOW!" barked another agent across the room.

"-I uh.. I'm just a computer guy."

"Then is this just some kind of, I don't know, meet and greet?" Bale looked around the room. There wasn't much socializing happening, a couple small, quiet conversations in a room full of mostly quiet agents on the lookout for more information. Before Carter could work up a suave response, a projector kicked on and a blurred face appeared on the wall. An anonymized voice spoke out.

"T. M. A. Secure the room. T. M. A. Secure the room. 30 seconds to comply." Each agent in the room raised their buzzing security fobs, affirming their authority to be present in whatever was about to happen. They took seats around the room and turned their attention to the screen. Shea locked the door, then glanced back at Bale questioningly. Bale shrugged, unsure if physical security was part of the order or not. The countdown on the screen hit 0, and for the first time all morning his pocket wasn't buzzing away. The face unblurred, though it might as well have stayed opaque. The person on the other end of the feed looked like the result of feeding a deep-learning algorithm thousands of agency staff photos and asking it to come up with a new agent. The same careful haircut and well-fit suit that all the upper-management wear. The same stern look of command.

"Thank you for arriving. Time is short, in this case shorter than usual. Everyone in the room with you now is immediately reassigned to this task, Project Acknowledge. Your missions parameters will arrive momentarily. But before that, some important disclosures. This message is pre-recorded. With a single exception, you now make up the entirety of the chain of command for this project. Regardless of background or area of expertise, anyone in this room now is a qualified member by virtue of being here, and should be trusted to act with the full responsibility befitting the gravest duties of the agency. It is critical that you act on the following information as a team, and above all else, the following information is not to leave this room without consensus. We entrust you to bring order and civility to the process of formulating a response plan, but you are authorized to subdue anyone who attempts to leave without consensus, up to and including lethal force."

A few agents looked around, but no one showed any interest in leaving.

"You are about to receive a raw transmission from a special source. This transmission was captured after this recording session, in my future, so I cannot tell you what is in it. But before you can receive it, you need the full context. The transmission comes from the future. Not just my future, but yours too. After the Straknov-Baaja demonstration hinted at the possibility of atemporal communication, the agency began building a protocol for handling messages from other times. You, Project Acknowledge, are that protocol. We cannot know why the future is choosing to reach back now, but in the interest of self-preservation we assume it is intentional. As we do not understand the nature of non-causal actions, you must tread carefully. The degree to which the transmission is exposed is a critical part of your charter. The more people you expose to the information in the transmission, the less likely the future is to manifest in the way they sender hoped for. 

"For your own safety, there is a single mind barrier between you and the transmission. Independent of the team in your room, a specialist has been trained and prepared to function as the 'first eyes' on the transmission. In the hypothetical future where non-causal communication is being used offensively, we must not assume the transmission is intended to be safe to receive. You will soon be provided the location of the Receiving Room, where you will meet the specialist. One of your duties, collectively, is to ascertain the effects of receiving the transmission on the recipient. The specialist is knowingly taking on a role of sacrifice and service, but trusts you to consider them as contaminated once they have received the transmission. The recipient will not be informed as to your identities, your number, or any other details about you, to minimize the risk of exploiting our quarantine protocol. Contact will be limited to a simple, single light bulb with a switch for you to operate. Until the team has consensus for more robust interaction, the specialist has been trained to interpret the light turning on as a command to describe the transmission. As such, your final act before heading to the Receiving Room is to agree on how to determine consensus. 

"We cannot adequately prepare you for every possibility that lies ahead, because they are endless in number. We can only hope this protocol serves to protect the present from the future. Good luck, and may you bring us all into a new age of prosperity." With that, a small silver pill dropped from the projector and the machine whirred down to silence. The pill skittered across the table and settled near Shea. He calmly put his hand over it and addressed the room. 

"If I had to guess, this pill tells us where the Receiving Room is. I'm not a leader, but I trust in protocol in absence of authority. Before we go, we need a consensus. So I know this is kinda formal, but unless anyone objects, can we take our first vote? I propose we agree to serve in function in accordance to the will of the group as expressed by a majority vote. For now, a vote in favor will be cast by holding up our TMA fob. If you agree to these terms of consensus, please raise your fobs now." With a few cautious glances around the room, no one seemed ready to speak up in objection, and all hands raised fobs in agreement.

"Whew, OK. I don't know about you all, but that's the first time I've ever been taken seriously in a situation meeting!" Shea laughed. His resilient spirit breathed a little life into the room. He palmed the pill and held it to his eye for close inspection. "Oh, it's just some GPS co-ordinates, let's see..." After a minute of pawing at his phone, Shea announced "Aww, I was all excited for a riddle and a hunt, but this is just down the hall from here. Oh well, I guess it's more efficient. OK, room 31-F, let's move out!" The agents filed down the hall in a eerie silence that somehow felt even more oppressive than usual. Even friendly colleagues they passed were coldly ignored as they deliberately marched to the Receiving Room.

Room 31-F was an enclosed balcony overlooking what seemed to be a re-purposed surgical gallery. One way mirrors provided a view of the lower room. It was dark down there, a single exit sign light casting a soft red glow on the murky form of a person sitting at a table. One of the agents raised his fob and said "Frankly, whatever is about to happen, I just want to get on with it. Permission to turn on the light and start this?" Most hands raised fobs in response, but Bale wasn't convinced the agent bothered to count before flipping the switch.

The lights gave appearance to the specialist, seated at the desk, and to three previously unnoticed automatic gun turrets arranged around the room, pointed surely at the specialist. As surprising as they were to the agents in the observation deck, the specialist seemed to pay them no mind. She proceeded with the confidence of someone committed to their training, and without looking up at the one-way glass window, she began to talk.

"I am the specialist who will serve as the first recipient of the transmission. At the current moment, I am of sound body and mind, and I take on this role with a full understanding of the risks involved. Before I begin, all I ask is that you do not hesitate if it is clear I have lost myself. The weapons here are well equipped to permanently silence me if need arises, but I cannot activate them from here. Do not allow me to live if my body is in service of something beyond me, please. With that out of the way, let's all hope this brings us to a new age of wisdom, and if all goes well we can laugh about it over drinks tonight, my treat. OK, on to business. I will first reveal the transmission to myself. After a period of one minute, I will begin to speak. I will start with a vague description of the transmission, to explain the nature or medium it presents in and ensure we are properly equipped to receive it. I will then stop, and wait for a light signal to proceed with the actual transmission. If possible, I will dictate the transmission, or play it from any of the non-networked playback devices in the room with me. If not, I will request the appropriate equipment. To ensure there is no confusion about the end of the transmission, I will take my shoes off of my feet when I am finished and place them here on the table faced away from each other. This is a very out-of character action to express clear intent, and a test of my mental faculty. If I fail to arrange my shoes as described, you are to take that as a sign I've been compromised. Please signal me with the light to confirm you understand the procedure."

The agent at the light switch glanced around the room. "Any questions? I mean, I don't know that she can even hear us. No? We're all good? Great." He toggled the switch on an off quick enough to stir up images of cheap jump scares from the horror movies Bale liked to watch as a kid. As if his brain was daring him to imagine some demon or malcontent spirit slipping into the room in the brief moment of darkness. He rubbed his eyes and reminded himself not to let his imagination get the best of him.

The specialist, who in kind consideration hadn't named herself to them, opened a peculiar box on the table. Slightly larger than a suitcase, and clearly connected to some kind of battery. The angle of the observation deck made it impossible to see into the box, as it's open lid blocked the interior. But the glow of whatever was inside illuminated the specialists face with a scintillating mystery. For one minute, that seemed to stretch on longer than any minute had a right to, she was the only human on the planet to know what she knew. Despite that, the extensive training and preparation she went through to be in that position kept her face almost totally blank. The lack of fear on her face was only as reassuring as the lack of everything else was alarming. Agents fidgeted uncomfortably, many busied themselves with looking to their watches for a countdown.

"The transmission has arrived in text, and the text appears to be in English. I am not aware of any unusual impact from reading the transmission, and believe it to be safe to communicate to you. If you agree, toggle the lights and I will continue. Until then, I will tell you personal stories so that you may measure my behavior. When I was 8, the school I attended was partially burned down over summer break. No one was injured, so it didn't make the news. They even managed to rebuild the damaged wing before students returned in the fall. My first class was in a rebuilt room, but I didn't know it had been rebuilt. They used the same blueprints, and stocked it with the same chairs.."

"As interesting as this school story is, does anyone mind if we jump to the transmission?" asked one of the more anxious agents in the observation deck. "She looks fine, and honestly she's done her part. We don't need to make her dance for us, right?" No one seemed to be too set on hearing the end of the specialist's story, so the agent by the light toggled it off and on again. This time it felt to Bale more like opening your eyes after a long dream. Everything before was weird and silly, but now it was time for some reality.

With all eyes glued to her, the specialist spoke. "The transmission appears to be simple. It reads 'Their is no need to worry, you are doing great.' Hearing it out loud doesn't convey the full message though. I will transcribe it exactly as written on the board here." She walked to a wall, took a marker, and began spelling out the message in big letters. 'Their is no need to worry, you are doing great.' "The spelling of the first word, 'their', is not my mistake. That is exactly how the message is written. And that's all there is to it, that I can see. I'll patiently wait here until you determine what to do next."

Every agent in the room took a long, slow breath in as they each tried to figure out what to say, but Shea beat them to the punch. "I quit. I'm sorry everyone, but it's over."

The agent, who Bale recognized as the officer who reminded Shea to mind his tongue earlier, stood up abruptly. "Excuse me? After all the spook stuff this morning, and that crazy mission briefing, you got the goods and you're out?" she asked.

"Oh, no... listen. I'm all down to help. If this was like a call from the future asking us to stop eating cheese, or watch out for an asteroid or something, I'd be all over it. But.." Shea looked around the room at the unconvinced faces "Oh. You don't see it yet. OK. This really, really sucks, and I'm not great at giving bad news. But, we're doomed. Like, we're finished, game over."

"How to you figure?" Bale asked, feeling like he's missing the most obvious joke ever told. "The transmission said everything is fine."

"The future just sent us the first message back in time. This is a monumental moment, one that will be at least as well documented as when Aldrin landed on the moon, right? But they messed up. The very first word is a typo."

"So what? Aldrin messed up his speech too, and lived for a long time afterwards." Bale said.

"Yeah, but Aldrin couldn't stop everyone from listening in. Everyone knew his mistake as soon as he made it. If NASA didn't have to worry about amateur radio nerds calling them out, don't you think they would've edited the missing word into the recording before putting it out to the public? The crowning achievement of the space race marred just slightly by a misspeak, you can bet your butts the top brass wanted a do-over. Unlike NASA, that's a real possibility with our friends from the future."

An agent interjected "I may not be totally up to date on time travel theory, but if they were going to change it, wouldn't we just have received the correct message?"

Shea shook his head. "No. I mean, look, I don't know how time travel or this message from the future actually works. But there are a two main models that we theorize about. The way you're talking about is the Single Timeline theory. Time and reality is a single continuous thing, and if you jump back in time to change it, it will have always been changed. Like editing a movie. Causality is always maintained. If this future message worked that way, we wouldn't receive the typo message. As soon as the future fixes it, it will have never been a typo. If your brain is tugging at all the paradoxes this introduces, you're in good company. That's why we have another model.

Another is the Multiple Timelines interpretation. Whenever you travel back in time, you actually split reality at that time into two forks. One proceeds as always up to the point of you traveling back in time. The other starts with you arriving in the past and carries forwards from there, taking into account any changes you create. I think this message proves we're in the latter scenario."

This time it was an older agent who spoke up. "OK, I think I follow. But if they send a second 'first message' back, that just means there's a new timeline that got it right. What's so worrying about that?"

"That timeline has a future. Ours is only good until we figure out how to send messages back in time and send that one to us. The future that Future Us wants Current Us to have is the one New Timeline Us gets to have. We're the mistake timeline. Even if we keep existing, we all just got proof that we aren't the versions of ourselves fulfilling our true purpose. We aren't the versions of ourselves that the Future wants, even though it's their fault they can't type."

Faces were slowly melting into panic as Shea's explanation carried on. "Maybe they'll just let it go? If someone as smart as you is in the room, maybe they'll know better than to correct the typo?" asked an agent who hadn't quite opened the door to fear.

"They are time manipulators. I would love to believe they have our interests at heart, but if they did, they wouldn't be reaching back in time to begin with. You only send messages to the past if you want to change history. They've already sent us a message, dooming some other timeline of humans that never received it. If they've done it once, why wouldn't they do it again? We aren't any more special than the versions of ourselves in the other dead-end timeline. When your printer malfunctions and sprays ink all over a page and you have to load a new sheet of paper, do you think much of the sacrifice of the tree who's body went into the ruined page? Even if you do, does that stop you from pressing Print a second time?"

"Jeez. That's so.. ugh. I can't even explain how sick this makes me feel. What the hell should we do?" Bale asked, feeling the panic take hold in his mind.

Shea chuckled, though there was clearly no mirth behind it, and said "I don't know that it matters. I'm not sure anything we do will matter anymore, ever."

"What are you going to do?"

Shea looked around the room. He'd never imagined that a room full of agents would be looking to him for guidance like this, and now that they were, it sure didn't feel that great. "You have all made careers out of keeping secrets, maybe it's best if you keep doing that. Me? I'm going to take the specialist up on her offer, and see if a long conversation with some tall drinks can talk me out of a nine millimetre make out session. Like I said, I quit. Who's with me?"

One by one, fobs were raised one last time. Some accompanied by a laugh, some with a sigh, and more than one at then end of a hand trembling with primal fear. Then, as professionally as they could, the agents walked out of the room and tried their best not to speak of the day ever again.

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