“The timeline must be protected at all cost,” warned the stern TVA agent before me. Her hair was gathered in a neat bun, pulled so tight that wrinkles were shoving. Her navy blue uniform was neatly pressed, and a taser hung loosely from her belt.

I sat in a brightly lit room, empty saved for the desk before me. On the desk was a black box with a few knobs and 3 bulbs: green, orange, and red.

“You have been briefed on the rules. A reminder: I will not hesitate to end your connection if you reveal pivoting information about the future. I will immediately pull the plug, and you will be blacklisted for the rest of your life — no more access to the PRISM. The penalty of serious infractions include up to 30 years of jail time.”

Every PRISM—the name was a near acronym of the original designation, “Plaga inter world signalling mechanism” — had two LEDs, one red and one blue. When a prism was activated, a quantum measurement was performed inside the device, with two possible outcomes of equal probability: one outcome was indicated by the red LED lighting up, while the other was indicated by the blue one. From that moment forward, the prism allowed information transfer between two branches of the universal wave function. In colloquial terms, the prism created two newly divergent timelines, one in which the red LED lit up and one in which the blue one did, and it allowed communication between the two.’— “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” by Ted Chiang

The PRISM was first invented as a medium of contact between parallel universes. The device is a currency on its own, a lifeline to those hungry for an alternate life.

Over time, scientists modified the PRISM to achieve 2-way communication between different points of the same timeline. The achievement was ground-breaking. Now, people can communicate with a younger or older version of themselves.

As always, when the mega corporations smelt money, their dicks hardened. The technology was adapted for the lay public. At an expensive price, of course. Highly regulated too — a Time Variance Authority (TVA) was established to protect our current sacred timeline. Playing with time is tricky business.

I put on my headset and adjusted the mic. The PRISM on the table stared back at me.

The TVA agent continued, “I will be in the room next door, but I will be listening to every word you say. Your time starts when the green light is lit. You have 5 minutes. When I find you nearing dangerous territory, I will flash the orange light; consider that a caution. When I deem you in dangerous territory, I will flash the red light; consider that a warning.”

I nodded. Yea yea, move it along, lady.

The TVA agent left the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.

Green light.

Next, there was static, followed by a young, eager voice.

21-year-old Chow Ping: Hello, older Chow Ping? You there?

31-year-old Chow Ping: Hi, young Chow Ping.

21 yo Chow Ping: So nice to hear your voice!

31 yo Chow Ping: You too, babe.

21 yo: So, so, how are you? Wait, got your command? Married?

31 yo: *Smiles and leans back in chair* There are good things on the horizon.

I could hear 21-year-old me pump her fist in the air.

21 yo: How’s papa, mama, everybody?

31 yo: Er. They’re well enough.

21 yo: How’s the future like?

31 yo: Shitty.

21 yo: What?

31 yo: The future is shitty. You will witness widespread catastrophe. A pandem-

I saw the orange light flashing. That TVA lady has no chill.

31 yo: I mean, something really really big is going to happen within your lifetime, and it’s going to affect the whole world. More and more people in Malaysia are going to lose their income, go hungry, and die. The desperation will be overwhelming. The suicide rate will rise sharply within a short period of time.

21 yo: Yikes! That’s really sad.

31 yo: And at the bloody same time, as the poor get poorer, you’ll see the collective net worth of the richest Malaysians jump 14%.

21 yo: Oh, wow. Sounds like the wealth gap is growing.

31 yo: Like FUCK, it is.

21 yo: Er… sorry? I think I heard you wrong.

31 yo: Oop, I meant, it is. It’s growing.

21 yo: But you can’t blame those tycoons — I’m guessing it’s the tycoons growing their wealth. They worked hard for their money.

31 yo: They definitely worked their asses off. And, chanced upon a healthy dose of dumb luck.

21 yo: There’s no such thing as luck. It’s all hard work.

31 yo: Oh. About that. Be open minded on that POV, okay?

21 yo: What do you mean?

31 yo: Very often, successful people just benefit from being at the right place at the right time. They aren’t necessarily more hardworking than the less successful ones.

21 yo: I don’t get it.

31 yo: The current capitalist system is designed so that those at the top of the totem pole accumulate wealth, whereas those further down live in an endless cycle of wage labour. It’s hard to break out. Which is also why poverty is a cycle.

21 yo: But there are so many people who were born poor and then went on to make a good life for themselves. Like Robert Kuok and Oprah Winfrey.

31 yo: Indeed. But there are way more people stuck in this perpetual loop no matter how hard they work. There are lucky ones, but they depend on more than ‘hard work’.

21 yo: *After a moment of silence* Are we ‘lucky’?

31 yo: We are. We’re lucky because of our privilege. One day, you’ll become acutely aware of our privilege. We’ll do okay, but that’s because we have been lucky.

21 yo: But we worked hard. You know how hard we work. We work harder than most people!

31 yo: Yes, we have, and it will pay off. But our accomplishments are not purely because of our hard work. This same hard work, in a less-privileged context, might not award us the same results.

21 yo: I don’t know. I don’t like the idea of this wild card. Everybody has control over their destiny.

31 yo: Luck might be a wild card, but it doesn’t have to be directly proportionate to welfare. If the system is better, and the wealth are not mostly stuck up there while others slave away and starve, then we don’t need luck.

21 yo: I still don’t like it when you say we’re just lucky. That’s erasing all our efforts.

31 yo: Acknowledging privilege doesn’t mean erasing our efforts. Even when shit hits the fan, you’ll be aware of how it’s our privilege that keeps us afloat.

21 yo: Because we have spare cash?

31 yo: Apart from that. Even if our bank account has zero, we have marketable skills, skills that were procured because of our privilege. Papa could afford to buy us stacks of books when we were a kid, which equipped us with knowledge, not to mention fluent English, to weather the storm. That’s privilege.

21 yo: God blessed us because papa and mama are faithful to Him.

31 yo: *Snorts loudly*

21 yo: What you are calling ‘luck’ is actually God’s blessings. We must thank him for blessing us.

31 yo: What about those that God didn’t ‘bless’ then?

21 yo: God blesses everyone. The blessing just comes in different forms, and some people refuse to receive the blessings.

31 yo: No, really. Law of subtraction. If God gives person A a parking spot, that means person B doesn’t have a parking spot. If God heals person C, then what about person D that God didn’t heal? What does that say about God?

21 yo: God has a plan for person B and D too. For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper and not-

31 yo: *Interrupts* Don’t Jeremiah 29:11 me now.

21 yo: God is in charge ma, so don’t worry. He is a good God, so we can trust him to take care of the weak and poor.

31 yo: That’s a problematic worldview. First and foremost, we don’t know that. If God has the power to do something, why is there so much suffering? And say God has the power, why do we assume that God will use this power to care for the oppressed?

21 yo: I don’t know why God feeds some, but not others, or why he heals some, but lets so many die.

31 yo: But you acknowledge that God plays favourites? When mama got canc-

The orange lightbulb started to blink.

I raised my eyebrows at the lightbulb and took a deep breath.

31 yo: Things happen sometimes, that’s just life. But it does not serve to tell a person that God is choosing favourites, and it’s not them.

21 yo: I’m not saying God is choosing favourites. I’m saying that sometimes, God allows us to go through hardship, but he doesn’t leave our side.

31 yo: So you’re saying that God caused the bad things to happen?

21 yo: Because he has a plan-

31 yo: Tell that to the 5,434 people who have died from this stupid Covid-19! And to the 100,000 that have been laid off and are starving!

Red flashes started to emit from the light bulb. The vulgar rays cut into my line of sight.

I raised a hand to cover the light bulb.

31 yo: Listen up, you little twerp-

“Time’s up. Say your goodbyes now. You have 5 seconds,” boomed TVA lady through a loudspeaker.

31 yo: Time’s up, I guess.

21 yo: It is. Well, God bless you.

31 yo: May She bless you too.

*Engaged tone*

••••••

Chow Ping’s note: This post was inspired by Ted Chiang’s short story, Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, found in Exhalation. He imagined a device, the PRISM, that could connect the multiverse, which led me to wonder if the PRISM could be adapted for communication within different parts of the same timeline.

A device like that could and would lead to complications regarding the timeline. Therefore, I tasked the TVA from the Marvel comics to manage the possible eventualities.

Writing this has forced me to confront how infuriating I used to be. I sincerely apologise.