Dying to Know
“This is it, Diego. The secret to everything. Can I call you Diego?”
I wiped my sweaty palms off on my jacket. “Of course, Mr. Dewitt. Of course…”
My voice trailed off. Maybe I should try a little harder to be polite to the richest man in the world, but right now Everett Dewitt was about 0.1% as interesting as what was in front of me.
It was a machine. A very strange machine. There were two chairs, with heavy straps and bulky helmets attached to the back. One was clearly brand new. In front of the chairs was a single monitor with mouse and keyboard. Thick bundles of wires traveled from the chairs into the wall, where they disappeared.
The room was quiet, only the distant hum of an HVAC system competing with the sound of blood pumping in my ears.
Mr. Dewitt hobbled forward. His cane clacked on the ground with every step. I moved to help him, and the old man gratefully took my arm. “Thank you, Diego. So polite. You were always my favorite of the snoops, you know that? Never cussed me out. Never went digging through my trash at night or tried to get my secretary drunk. Just good old fashioned shoe-leather journalism. I respect that.”
I helped Mr. Dewitt make his way the to the older of the two chairs, where he sat down heavily. He folded his hands on top of his cane and turned to look at me. His eyes were crinkled, but still bright and alert.
“Is that why you’re giving me this exclusive?” I asked. My eyes kept darting away from his face to the machine. The monitor was boring, just a normal LCD with a Dewitt Capital logo on the lock screen. The helmets drew most of my attention. They were bulky, with sturdy-looking chin straps and a cable coming out the back.
“Mm,” Mr. Dewitt grunted. “That’s part of it. Partly it’s your background. Dropped out of a physics PhD, a philosophy PhD, and a journalism program. Couldn’t think of anyone better to pass on the secret to. But mostly it’s none of that.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to react to that. “So,” I said instead, “what’s the secret?”
I’d been trying to answer that question on and off for most of my career. Dewitt Capital had been founded almost 60 years ago, before I was born. It had earned a steady return of at least 20% every year since its founding. The consistency was literally unbelievable. Everett Dewitt had been investigated for fraud, market manipulation, insider trading, everything, and always came up squeaky clean. It didn’t seem to matter what was going on in the markets. Dewitt Capital was a machine that took in publicly available data and spat out short-term trades that always added up to 20% per year. That was just how the world was.
Everyone knew there was a secret. Dewitt Capital had fewer than five employees for most of its existence. It had added a few more once its assets started to get into the trillions, but all the trading decisions were still made by Mr. Dewitt himself. He purchased millions of dollars of seemingly useless hardware, probably to obscure which pieces were actually useful, and claimed to assemble it all himself. Most of the building we were in was probably just warehouse space filled with unused parts.
“I need to show you the secret, before I explain it,” Mr. Dewitt said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t believe it. Hell, I hardly believe it. Now have a seat.”
I hesitated for a moment. Maybe for more than a moment. But I had to see this. Eventually, I lowered myself into the brand-new chair beside Mr. Dewitt. He began to strap himself in, and I followed suit. The straps clicked in to seatbelt-like fasteners around the edge of the chair, but with no visible button to release them. Mr. Dewitt saw me looking. “Time release,” he said, like that explained everything.
Then we secured the helmets onto our heads. The chin strap locked them securely in place. Also on a time release as far as I could tell. They weren’t coming off until then.
Finally, Mr. Dewitt shook the mouse to wake up his monitor. I couldn’t see the screen well from my angle, but he clicked a few things and typed a little. Then he put his hand under the chair and retreived a small pill bottle.
I eyed it skeptically as he rattled it over his palm, dispensing two pills. “What are those?”
“Short-term hypnotic. It’ll knock us out for about an hour. Just a quick little nap.”
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“The pills? They’re very safe.”
“Is the rest of the machine not?”
“From a certain philosphical perspective, the rest of the machine is also very safe.”
I coughed. “Excuse me? ‘From a certain philosophical perspective?’”
“Well, I think it’s safe, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve been using it 200 days a year for most of my life.”
He dry-swallowed one of the pills, then held the other one out to me. I reluctantly took it and popped it in my mouth. It went down easy.
“Why do we have to be asleep, exactly?”
“Just a little philosophical wiggle room. Helps with the existential dread.”
“No time for that now. We only have a few minutes before we’re asleep.” He angled the screen toward me. There was a window on the left, labeled HARDWARE QRNG. On the right was an interface that looked a little like a bloomberg terminal.
“I have a quantum random number generator hooked up to this trading app. In half an hour, when we’re asleep, it’s going to begin randomly trading stocks for ten minutes. Then it will stop, see what sort of returns we got, and decide whether or not to activate the secret.”
“And you can’t tell me what the secret is?”
He shook his head. “Not until you see that it works.” He pressed the enter key, and text started to move around the screen. “There. It’s running now. Had to wait until we took the pills, to be sure.”
My eyes were getting heavy. “What sort of returns activate the secret?” I asked, yawning. But Mr. Dewitt was even further along than me. Instead of answering, he leaned his head back, and soon afterward I was alone with his snores.
I had about thirty seconds to reflect on how surreal my day had become before I joined him.
I woke up an hour later by my watch, just like he’d said. The straps on my chair had already released themselves. I eased off the helmet and stood up to stretch.
Mr. Dewitt stirred beside me. I helped him get his helmet off, but he didn’t stand up, preferring to sit.
I felt perfectly alert. “What’s in those pills?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Never asked. The lab rats at one of the bio corps we bought out give ‘em to me.”
“It’s not an important part of the process, then?”
“It’s a hell of a lot better than the alternatives. I started out using a bottle of vodka. You want to be real sure you don’t wake up in the middle.”
I laughed, before realizing it wasn’t a joke. “You’re serious?”
“What, you think I had all this fancy gear on day one? I got my start with a USB QRNG, an old desktop, and a shotgun with a stepper motor hooked up to the trigger. And the vodka, to make sure I slept through it.”
I raised an eyebrow. Maybe he was still woozy from the pills. “A shotgun?”
He nodded, seeming lucid. His eyes were as sharp as ever. I held them for a moment, then looked away.
I was just about done with cryptic hints. “So did it work?” I asked. “Can you tell me the damned secret?”
Mr. Dewitt turned the monitor so I could see it. There was a bunch of text in a debug log, with a final rate of return at the bottom: 0.1%. I whistled. Not bad for an hour of trading. Right below that, in bright red text, it said “top 1e-6 outcome, preserving”.
“Do you believe,” Mr. Dewitt said in a perfectly sane-sounding voice, “in the many worlds hypothesis?”
“Er. I’d call it more of an interpretation than a hypothesis. But sure. It seems as valid as anything else.”
Mr. Dewitt nodded. “Good, good. Good. The device I have constructed does three things. One, it generates truly random bits, splitting the timeline with each one. Two, it uses those random bits to make trades. Three, it forces my consicousness into only those timelines where the random trades performed well. That’s the secret.”
Got it. Generate some random numbers, make some trades, and then batshit insane magic. “How does it ‘force your consciousness’ into certain ‘timelines’?” I asked, not quite able to keep my voice respectful. I’d become pretty good at recognizing cranks early on in my physics PhD, and that sounded like crankery to me.
“Simple.” Mr. Dewitt seemed unperturbed by my tone. “First of all, it has a one in a trillion chance of doing nothing. That’s a very important safeguard. After passing that check, the program simulates many other trades it could have made. If it determines that the trades it actually made are in the top one in a million outcomes, it still does nothing. Otherwise it detonates the helmets.”
His words hung in the air. “Excuse me,” I said. “Did you say detonate? Like a bomb?”
“Exactly. It detonates the helmets. Boom, instant death, totally painless. So I – we, now – only wake up in the universes where we made money.”
My face blanched. “You can’t be serious.”
“Is this a joke?”
“No joke, Diego. I promise you. The numbers on the screen speak for themselves.”
Oh shit. Shit. I bent over and put my hands on my knees, hyperventilating.
“I almost died,” I mumbled to myself.
“No, no. You could only have woken up if you lived. And you always wake up in at least one timeline. That’s why the failsafe is so important, so that we survive in at least one in a trillion timelines even if the market software glitches–”
“That doesn’t matter!” I replied, my voice rising. “Jesus christ. One in a million. We threaded the fucking needle. Jesus! You tried to kill me!” I realized I was shouting.
Mr. Dewitt sighed. “I used to have the same fears, Diego. But it works. Believe me. I have taken that one in a million chance hundreds of times a year for most of my life. I’ve always woken up. After a while you learn to accept it.”
He believed it. His eyes, so bright and alive for a man his age, now seemed to me to be burning with madness. The crazy old fool really believed in this bizarre perversion of the anthropic principle. The real joke was on me for having the misfortune to live in the one universe out of 10^(10^6) or so where this crazy bastard had somehow managed to nail a one in a million chance of not dying almost daily for 60 years.
Although – and I winced, as my brain betrayed me – there was a chance his argument worked. Wasn’t there? Was it more likely I’d just survived a one in a million dice roll, or that the argument worked?
I shook my head. That line of reasoning was stupid. Mr. Dewitt sat quietly, letting me work through things.
“Why?” I finally asked. “Why are you showing me this? What do you expect to happen?”
Mr. Dewitt sighed. “I’m old, Diego,” he said. “This body is dying. But I have a plan.”
“Decades ago, I devised a method for randomly generating plans to escape the death of my body. I wouldn’t be able to sleep through the process, like I do while trading, but I’ve made my peace with that. I used my QRNG to generate a plan, splitting the timeline into as many pieces as I could. In this timeline, the plan was to amass as much wealth as possible, fund cryogenics research, and entrust my empire to you while I am asleep. I just have to hope you will figure out a way to wake me up.”
I took a moment to process the fact that, in lieu of the scoop I’d been promised, I apparently stood to inherit a multi-trillion-dollar fund. “Decades ago? I wasn’t even born then. How could that be the plan?”
Mr. Dewitt reached into a pocket. He retrieved an old-looking sheet of paper, worn thin at the edges, and handed it to me.
My palms had gotten sweaty again. I wiped them on my shirt and took the paper with shaking hands. I unfolded it, careful not to let it tear along the well-worn crease.
It had a single english paragraph printed in an old fashioned monospaced font. Most of it was gibberish. It looked – and I felt crazy for thinking this – like someone had generated billions of pages of random words, then sorted through them looking for the most reasonable paragraphs.
Toward the end I found what he probably meant for me to read.
CRYOGENICS FUND DOLLARS WAIT DIEGO STEERING AFTER KNOWS
Tingles ran down my spine. I wanted to ask how he could possibly have known a reporter named Diego would be working the beat for his investment fund. But I already knew the answer he’d give – in the universes where that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be standing here reading it.
“You understand now,” Mr. Dewitt said quietly. “I will be going to sleep soon. I very much hope you will be able to wake me up one day. But if you can’t, there are many other plans.”
His eyes grew far away as he spoke. “I only need one,” he said, his voice soft. “I only need one plan to work. And then I’ll get to wake up.”