A Clear and Obvious Error

[ 2 ] Sir? Is now a good time?

[ 1 ] Hmm? Oh, yes! Yes! My door is always open. Well, it was closed just then, but figuratively. Come in! How can I help?

[ 2 ] It’s just … we think we’ve got something.

[ 1 ] Something. Something big? Or something administrative? Because I have people who take care of that sort of thing.

[ 2 ] Big, sir. We think. So, er … where should I begin …

[ 1 ] I find “at the beginning” usually works.

[ 2 ] Right. The beginning. Ha. The beginning.

[ 1 ] Is something funny?

[ 2 ] No, no. Well … I’ll explain. We are currently in orbit around the object of our mission: planet 34.567.12/Sol/alpha. Or “Earth”, as we suppose it was called by the inhabitants.

[ 1 ] Hang on. There aren’t any inhabitants. That’s why we’re here.

[ 2 ] Yes! Why does this planet — with the right atmosphere, the right mineral composition, the right everything, pretty much — not have the intelligent life it should? There’s plenty of life, and a few second-order intelligences here and there —

[ 1 ] Mostly in the oceans, if I recall correctly.

[ 2 ] Exactly. But nobody thinking, talking, and tool-using in the way we might expect. In a way that might one day lead off the planet and into the wider galaxy. To us.

[ 1 ] So. Why did life never evolve here?

[ 2 ] That’s just it, sir. We think it did, along the lines you might expect. And then, once it reached a certain point, it disappeared.

[ 1 ] No, hang on. We looked at that first. All the archaeologists were in agreement: no cities, no traces of industry, no signs of agriculture, no bones. And no trace of a mass extinction event, not after that massive rock that did for all those weird feathery lizards.

[ 2 ] Yes, sir. But when I say disappeared, I don’t mean “vanished” or “blew itself up” or “got wiped out by a plague.” I mean … I suppose the closest word is “unwound.”

[ 1 ] Unwound?

[ 2 ] Yes. Well, sort of.

[ 1 ] Sort of?

[ 2 ] Ahem. Let me expl—

[ 1 ] Are you talking about time travel? Because I have some physicists around here somewhere who get very agitated whenever anybody talks about time travel.

[ 2 ] Sir—

[ 1 ] A couple of metaphysicists too, come to think of it. Strange people.

[ 2 ] Let me explain. When you were reading the briefing notes — the Extrapolation sections, specifically — do you remember the part on recreation?

[ 1 ] Vaguely. I rather skimmed that bit, to be honest with you. “This is what we think an intelligent society might have looked like, had one happened, though we can’t find any evidence that it did.” This psychohistory stuff is all a bit wishy-washy, if you ask me. Give me some good solid tectonic movements. You know where you are with earthquakes. At least, you know where you started. Go on.

[ 2 ] Thank you, sir. Anyway, had you read that section, you’d have come across something called “soccer” or “football,” which is, to briefly summarize, our best guess as to what the dominant sport of a bipedal intelligent species evolved from apes would look like.

[ 1 ] Best guess?

[ 2 ] Well, technically it’s a four-dimensional psychohistorical projection, but “best guess” just about summarizes it. As a sport, actually, it’s not too different to our own tzurtclich. Except only with one ball. And that doesn’t explode.

[ 1 ] Ah, tzurtclich. What a game. I could have been professional, you know. Had the knack for it. A little luck here, an explosion or two the other way there. Great days …

[ 2 ] Yes, sir. Anyway, based on our calculations, had this “soccer” existed, it would have developed out of the end of the industrial age, and then become more and more widespread through the information age. And there would come the problem.

[ 1 ] Problem?

[ 2 ] Yes. We estimate that around the time that the intelligent population of Earth reached six or seven billion, “soccer” would have been the most dominant sport around the globe. It would have been followed by millions upon millions, broadcast across every form of media available, and utilized by various powerful interests to advance their own ends. Based on our projections as to the likely psychology of these bipedal ape-people, we don’t think “obsession” would be too strong a word.

[ 1 ] So there’s loads of people, and they’re all bang into this “soccer.” So what?

[ 2 ] So … well, sir, do you remember the tzurtclich debates over the umpires?

[ 1 ] Oh, yes. Offside, onside; goal, no goal; ball exploded, ball not fully exploded. Almost killed the game, the arguing. All the umpires went on strike after that assassination attempt. Good job that chap came up with those all-seeing referee bioroids, otherwise it would have got silly.

[ 2 ] Quite. Well, we calculate that these ape-people hit the same point in their sporting obsession before they were able to build similar artificial adjudicators, yet the arguments were just as intense. So they would have had to use what was available, which would be, by our calculations, broadcast media. We think they’d have developed a system whereby controversial decisions were sent to a kind of appeal system, where other umpires could look at the tapes and then correct decisions where appropriate.

[ 1 ] Very sensible.

[ 2 ] Yes. Well, initially. The problem with such a system is, of course, that it pulls authority to itself. The on-field adjudicators stop making decisions in the moment, knowing they can be checked later. And you get longer and longer periods of consideration. Our estimate is that within a year or so of its introduction, decisions would be reversed because of infringements that took place two or even three minutes earlier.

[ 1 ] “Minutes?”

[ 2 ] That was all covered under Extrapolation — time, sir.

[ 1 ] Oh, right. Yes. Yes, of course. But how does this lead to the disappearance — sorry, unwinding — of an entire species?

[ 2 ] This is where it gets a little more speculative, sir. Everything up to this point has been well within the psychohistorical margin of error, but now we get a little fuzzy.

[ 1 ] Fuzzier.

[ 2 ] As you like, sir. We have three suppositions. The first is that technological advancements would go not toward replacing this review system, but to enhancing its corrective powers. The second is that disagreements over this review system, already taking place, would only get more entrenched. And the third is that the statute of limitations on these reviews would slip and slip, until at some point it reached the beginning of any given game of soccer. And then back further.

[ 1 ] Oh. Oh, dear.

[ 2 ] Exactly.

[ 1 ] Oh no.

[ 2 ] We guess — and this really is a guess, albeit a highly educated one that helpfully explains the strange situation we have here — that at some point this video review system was improved to the point that it could directly impose solutions, without needing its overseers. From there, it became just a matter of time before an in-game decision — a penalty, say — was reversed by the system reaching back into the tangle of events that led up to the moment and tweaking something.

An illness, picked up on the morning of the game? A moment in training a week or two beforehand? An accident at a young age, ending a child’s ambitions to officiate? We don’t know. But when the directive is to ensure that the correct outcome is reached, then it just becomes a question of power, and whoever gets to define “correct.” And as we know from the Paper Incident of ‘42, these decisions aren’t always best left to machines.

[ 1 ] I still shudder whenever I hear the word “ream.”

[ 2 ] Afterward, the end was inevitable. We guess that the ape-people split into factions, one demanding that the review system be torn down and destroyed, the other welcoming their new overlord and its power to correct things. Maybe there was even a war or two, though they wouldn’t have lasted long before the system took action.

[ 1 ] Sounds pretty chaotic.

[ 2 ] Worse. Sounds incorrect. Eventually, we think the system would have concluded that the only way to right things was to go right back to the start of things. And this is what we think happened. The system traced the development of the ape-people, all the way back to the moment that should have happened. The first emergence of the fish from the sea. The tipping point of the evolution of intelligent life. And then …

[ 1 ] Yes? What?

[ 2 ] Well, blown the whistle, so to speak.

[ 1 ] The whistle?

[ 2 ] Yes sir. Reversed the decision. Awarded an indirect free-kick the other way.