Of all the great inventions of the 21st Century, the Defarge Inter-universal Calibrating Engine (DICE) was arguably the most important. Just as the 20th Century was the century of the Bomb and the dawn of the Nuclear Age, so the 21st was the century of DICE.
Developed by the Pentagon, DICE was named after French theorist Louis Defarge, whose seminal hypothesis about the possibility of Inter-universe transfer was the principle underlying DICE. Defarge started from a perspective that saw the Universe as being an accumulation of an infinite series of random events that added up to one coherent whole – a cyclone of Reality created by the flutter of a whole flock of quantum butterflies –bounded in space time by probabilistic forces. In theory, changing any one of those events, or suppressing them from happening, would fundamentally alter the development of the Universe, giving rise to an alternate reality. Probabilistically speaking, the world we lived in was, in fact, surrounded by an infinite number of such parallel worlds, divided from ours by walls of nothing more than chance.
Thus far many others had gone before him. Defarge’s contribution was to argue (and mathematically prove) that it was possible to tamper retrospectively with the sequence of events that led to this present reality – in other words, to switch to a different Universe, rather like a train jumping tracks. The key, according to Defarge, lay in the fact that most events that made up this reality were so insignificant that they may as well not have happened, that they had, in fact, ceased to exist in the subjective sense since no one had any apprehension of them. Reality, though virtually indestructible, was thus also porous, and manipulations in the present could, in theory, allow us to influence a minute event in the past. Not any particular event, mind, and not at any particular time – the possibility existed only because the change to be accomplished remained undefined.
This was not, as Defarge was quick to point out, time travel – that was still impossible. Indeed, his point was that it was precisely because we humans had always conceived of the problem of time travel as the problem of moving an object from the present to a specified time and place in the past, that we had failed to recognize this opportunity – of exerting an influence on the past in order to change the present. “You cannot break the skin of reality with a hammer”, Defarge wrote, “but you can pierce it with a needle”.
When these theories of Defarge were first published, in his book Chance and Stasis: The Possibility of Inter-Universal Transfer, no one took them seriously. Defarge was described as being a “dreamer” and a “writer of science fiction” and his ideas were dismissed as having “no basis in fact, however rich they may be in imagination”. Yet a small team of researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory paid close attention to Defarge’s calculations, and the result, five years later, was the unveiling of DICE, a device that was designed to do precisely what Defarge had claimed was possible – to reach back in time to alter some undefined event, thus retrospectively recalibrating the Universe and switching the whole world to an alternate reality. Housed in an unknown location somewhere in the Nevada desert, and controlled directly from the White House, DICE was, essentially, a giant Restart button, one that allowed humankind to wipe out the immediate past and permanently switch to a different world.
There was a catch, though. Actually, two catches. First, because of the improbabilities involved, DICE could only be used once. Second, and more important, because it was impossible to control exactly what event in the past got changed (or, more strictly speaking, it was impossible to change any event in the past that was known and identifiable – the act of focusing on an event in the past making it ineligible for change), there was no way to predict what the new reality would look like. The practical implication of this was spelled out in his introductory lecture by Dr. Tnetrop Dakkar, the leader of the team that designed DICE:
These peculiar features of DICE made it a subject of immediate controversy. Those who believed in Defarge’s hypothesis (or at least trusted the Pentagon) saw DICE as a boon granted to mankind, a final way out from the threat of annihilation. Others, more cynical, argued that since DICE was, by design, conveniently indemonstrable, it amounted to little more than a hoax. How do we know that this machine actually does what it claims to, they asked, perhaps the US is just bluffing? And even if they believe that it can reset the world how do we know it will work? It wouldn’t be the first time that a piece of experimental technology has failed. How do we know it won’t simply blow all of us up? Yet a third group saw DICE as a moral aberration, arguing that if the day of destruction came it would be because we had deserved it. Mankind, they said, had no right to interfere with the workings of a Higher Power. The Universe should not play DICE with God. A fourth group argued against this view – pointing out that since DICE could not control what Universe we ended up in, it would, in fact, be God who made that choice. Besides, they said, pointing to Pascal, God was not inconsistent with rational calculation: given a choice between certain destruction and infinitely unlikely survival, choosing the latter was the only moral choice.
“DICE is, and must be considered, an instrument of absolute last resort. It must be used only in the most extreme eventuality – when the destruction of the human race seems imminent, and it becomes impossible to imagine a world worse than the one we inhabit. DICE is, in every sense, the last, most desperate gamble of a species that has nothing left to lose. I hope and pray that we never need to use it.”
At any rate, argument and debate was rife everywhere. In some cities, riots broke out over the question of DICE, with demonstrators for one group coming to blows with demonstrators for the other. Soon the world was divided into the believers, who saw DICE as mankind’s only hope of being saved, and the skeptics, who saw DICE as a false invention and relied on no such redemption.
Years passed. Whatever else DICE was or was not capable of, the boost it gave to the power and prestige of the United States was undeniable. Already the world’s greatest superpower, the US became even more preeminent, and, as a result, even more arrogant, than it had been before. Partly it was sheer awe at the power that the US now commanded - its ability to restart history - that caused nations to want to stay on its good side. But mostly it was just the knowledge that there’s no point in trying to wipe out an enemy who would simply reset the world if pushed to the brink.
Every decade or so, some catastrophe would lead some people to demand that DICE be used. Every earthquake, tsunami, cyclone, terrorist strike, war or genocide brought its own cries for the use of DICE, with the friends and relatives of the victims pledging their willingness to live with the consequences of whatever reality they may end up in.
To all these requests, however, the Keepers of DICE offered little more than a polite refusal. These Keepers themselves had changed considerably since the time when DICE was first developed. Originally in the hands of senior functionaries in the Pentagon, the supervision of DICE had been spun off into a separate service when it was realized that the monitoring of DICE required a perspective far broader, far more removed, than that involved in military strategy. From here on, the Keepers soon evolved into something very like a sect, with a handful of new recruits being chosen every year from the world’s leading universities to join the service. The Keepers were withdrawn, solitary men who lived in a haze of alternate realities joined to a constant awareness of the ephemeral nature of the present world. They seldom married, seldom had friends outside of work. Instead, like acolytes praying to an aloof God, they spent long hours trying to model and imagine the various possibilities of what the world would look like if DICE were used. This was, by definition, an impossible task - the possibilities were infinite to begin with, and working through the full implications of a single change on the structure of the Universe would require a computer as big as the Universe itself – all the Keepers’ simulations amounted to was an elaborate ritual of video games. Still, because of their proximity to this ineluctable power, and because of the influence they themselves might bear on the future of mankind, these Keepers were held in high esteem.
And the Keepers did have power – or rather the Head Keeper did. While in theory, the decision to activate DICE lay with the President of the United States and with him / her alone, it was understood that the real authority rested with the Head Keeper. After all, he / she was the one who understood (or at least understood as well as anyone else) the ramifications of activating DICE. It would take a real madman to use DICE against the advice of the Head Keeper. Not even Presidents of the United States were that crazy.
When nuclear war finally came, no one was quite sure what triggered it. Some claimed it was human folly – a hotheaded young pilot flying a plane armed with nuclear missiles who overreacted and started the whole thing – others that it was the logical consequence of centuries of neo-imperialist economic oppression by the Western World, still others that it was the work of religious fanatics (Jews or Muslims, depending on where you lived) who had formed a conspiracy to destroy the world.
At any rate, it wasn’t long before the chain of nuclear response and counter-response had played itself out, leaving the world at the brink of extinction. 98% of the human race was estimated to be dead already, and those who remained were unlikely to survive the radiation damage they had suffered. Even if they did survive, moreover, the complete decimation of all life systems, the blocking off of sunlight and the ruin of both land and sea, meant that life on earth was now impossible in any meaningful sense. It was time, therefore, to turn to DICE.
The Keepers, after weeks of collecting data and running simulations to see whether the world might in fact, survive on its own, approved. The President, horrified by the destruction he had seen, saw no other way. On what would have been a bright spring morning in April if the clouds from the nuclear fall-out hadn’t wiped out the sky, the leaders of the free world gathered in a small, secret location to reset the world forever. The security codes were punched in, the starting sequence initiated. Finally, at a nod from the President, the Head Keeper pressed the red button.
The Universe changed.
The new world was different from the old one, even though this wouldn’t have been immediately obvious to an outside observer (not that outside observers were possible). Not much had changed. Earth was still a nuclear wasteland, mankind was still dying out. Beyond this tiny planet, the order of the galaxies was the same as it had always been, though perhaps a star or two had shifted position slightly. The difference was that in this new Universe there was no DICE, no possibility of turning the world back and starting again – it had never been invented, never been conceived. Here, in this universe, destruction was inevitable, and there was no hope.