Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Double Time

Double Time

Skaters in black practice outfits swerved around Shelly. Her music was playing over the PA system. She had right of way. A scattering of figure skating fans sat in the rink’s hard, blue, plastic seats. Even to a practice session, some had brought their flags. Her mom sat near the boards and waved her US flag as though if only it had shook more fiercely last night, Shelly would have landed her triple Lutz-triple toe jump combination in the short program.

The arena twinkled. Flashes of gold shimmered into fans sitting near to their slightly younger selves. Apparently, something would happen in the next few minutes they wanted to jump back in time to see again. The Shelly who had just finished this practice skate stood by the boards with Mr. Song watching the current Shelly skate. She ignored all of that. If she didn’t wrestle her attention back onto the ice, she’d miss the combination again. No one wanted that, least of all her mom. She set her mind back onto mustering as much technical excellence and expression into her free skate as possible. She was still jet-lagged.

Her music ended and the announcer called out the program length. Three minutes and fifty-nine seconds. In a competition, much longer than four minutes and she’d be assessed a time penalty. In a practice session, much longer than four minutes and the start of her practice skate would be too far in the past to jump back to watch. Mom insisted that Shelly witness her run throughs because video never gave a good sense of a skater’s sense of speed or ice coverage and because Shelly never remembered what she’d actually done on the ice. Of course, seeing yourself skating live and in person wasn’t even remotely creepy. Unfortunately, Mr. Song didn’t see any harm. Shelly skated to the boards, ignored the four-minute-older version of her rushing back onto the ice, then squeezed the time jumper latched to her wrist. Its digital display started counting down from four and a half minutes.

The world flashed gold. It spun in one direction. Her stomach spun in the other. Mr. Song and the rest of the rink shimmered into being. He nodded then handed Shelly her blade guards. As she put them on, her name blasted over the PA system as the next to skate. Mr. Song and Shelly settled by the boards to watch her slightly younger self skate to the middle of the rink then strike the same opening pose as Michelle Kwan had in her iconic 1998 free skate to the same music, Lyra Angelica. Shelly was just relieved Mom hadn’t insisted that she simply ape Michelle Kwan move for move. Free skate requirements had changed too much since then.

“I shouldn’t be here.” Shelly winced at her opening triple Lutz. “I’m not even supposed to be a Senior yet.”

She was because, last season, Mom had made Shelly take her Senior-level test behind Mr. Song’s back. When he found out, he wasn’t angry. Mr. Song was never angry. He merely pointed out in his own wry way that Shelly had her work cut out for her. She had placed a miraculous sixth at Nationals and now here she was starting this season with a bye out of Regionals so that she could compete against the best figure skaters on the planet instead. Because that wouldn’t lead to utter and all-consuming humiliation. No, not at all.

“Don’t worry about tonight’s free skate. You’ll do fine.” Mr. Song folded his arms across his chest. “It’s your first Senior international competition. Even your mom should understand you’re not expected to do well. I mean, Michelle Kwan’s first in 1993, she placed sixth after the short program and ended up seventh overall out of eight.”

“Mom doesn’t do pre-1995 or post-2000 Kwan.” Shelly slumped, leaning into the boards. “As far as she’s concerned, Michelle Kwan never placed lower than second in any competition.”

“I’m sure she has a better—Hey, that’s interesting.” Mr. Song had a penchant for understatement. He pointed out Tatiana Mishina, both of them, spinning side-by-side on the ice. “She’s going to do it.”

The latest rule changes had just come into effect. All summer long, the rumor had been that the European and World gold medalist would time jump from the end of her free skate back to the start to skate the whole thing with herself in unison. Done wrong, the penalties would take her off the podium, possibly out of the top ten. Done right and well, the bonus points she’d rack up could make her unbeatable.

Dread slithered through Shelly’s body. It coiled around her heart and lungs then squeezed. Tatiana had just landed a flawless side-by-side triple Lutz-triple toe combination, earning Mom’s rapt attention. Usually, Mom was busy scribbling down Shelly’s mistakes. Right now, though, the gleam of the brilliant idea in Mom’s mind was as impossible to miss as the flashes of gold popping across the arena as fans jumped back in time.

“Maybe Tatiana’s just trying to psych out her competitors?”

Mr. Song looked at Shelly with the same incomprehension he did when Mom spoke in Mandarin too quickly. As though each sound made sense by itself, but not in sequence. Like Shelly, he was sort of fluent enough.

“Do you like going into double time?”

Just thinking about it made Shelly woozy. Besides, the amount of time you jumped back had to be made up with jumps forward. Lots of people did that at night just before going to sleep, but all those chunks of time added up. Between schoolwork and practice, she got little enough sleep as it was.

“We can convince Mom that I’m not good enough to time jump back—”

“Actually, skating just the last two minutes in double time isn’t a bad idea. You already train clean double run throughs—”

“But, Mr. Song—”

“Shelly, this is this future. Next season, all the elite skaters will do some part or all of their free skates in double time. We can train it and try it out at Sectionals. Even if it’s a disaster, you’ll still place well enough to qualify for Nationals.”

Her music ended. The Shelly on the ice started skating for the boards.

“Can’t talk about it now. I’m coming here. Meeting me would be way too awkward.”

Shelly threw off her blade guards. She rushed back onto the ice, ignoring her four-minute-younger self.

• • • •

By the time the Zambonis rolled onto the ice, Shelly had finished seventh like her namesake, Michelle Kwan, also had her first time out. A whole two skaters had placed behind her. However, while Mom wanted Shelly to skate like Michelle Kwan, this was not what Mom had in mind. Mom didn’t share Shelly’s relief at not placing last. For days afterwards, as Mom drove them to and from Shelly’s three daily practices, silence hung in the car like the heavy air before a storm.

The car’s headlights barely lit the empty street and Shelly’s flashlight barely lit her AP Chemistry textbook. She was oddly grateful for the quiet. Not acing her chemistry exam would have made Mom about as happy as coming in seventh. The exam would have been easier had Mom allowed her to take regular chemistry first. She squeezed in classes between practices. Half days of school had its advantages, actually. No one really had the chance to call her a “ho” any more. Yes, it was her last name, sort of, but really? The name-calling had gotten old long before high school.

“Shelly, Mr. Song and I have had a talk.”

Shelly sank into her seat. She’d hoped skating in unison with herself would be simple. A week where the two hers spun out of sync, didn’t land jumps at the same time, not to mention didn’t hit their end poses at the same time had changed her mind. Her unison had improved since, but it couldn’t possibly be perfect enough for Mom yet.

“Mom.” Her ribcage seemed to shrink, squeezing the air from her lungs. “Isn’t getting one international assignment this season good enough? Besides, Mr. Song said I don’t need to skate in double time to win Sectionals.”

“何穎珊.” Shelly’s full name. The only thing worse would be if Mom continued speaking in Mandarin. “Your father and I did not come to this country so that our eventual child could be merely good enough at anything. In any case, you won’t be competing at Sectionals.”

“I won’t?” Shelly refused to get her hopes up. No way that Mom had decided Shelly didn’t need to skate anymore. Figure skating was an expensive sport. Mom and Dad had already given up so much for her.

“No, the USFSA has given you a bye through to Nationals. You’ll be taking Emily Takahashi’s remaining Grand Prix assignment next week.”

Emily had suffered a stress fracture a month or so ago during her first Grand Prix competition of the season. The reigning US National gold medalist, Four Continents gold medalist, and World silver medalist had expected to recover in time for her second Grand Prix. Apparently not.

“Oh.” Panic forced the air out of Shelly. “And I’ll be skating in double time during my free skate?”

“Of course.” Mom signaled her turn into the rink’s parking lot. “I expect you to win this.”

Shelly knew better than to argue with Mom. She slipped her textbook into her backpack. Skaters who might make the podium at Worlds skated the Grand Prix series. So much for a tune-up event to test skating in double time.

• • • •

The opening notes of Shelly’s free skate filled the rink. She slid over the ice in quick, elegant arcs. Tonight, the music’s ethereal joy washed over her as her heart pounded through her chest. She’d nailed her triple Lutz-triple toe combination in the short program and was in second place entering the free skate by a healthy margin. Against some of the world’s best, if she delivered the skate she’d been practicing for the past month, she might end up third overall. She’d stand on the podium at a Grand Prix competition. And, finally, Mom would be proud of her.

That joy lasted until her first jumping pass. She two-footed the landing of her triple Lutz, then squeaked out only a single toe loop in combination. Her jumps went downhill from there. She rolled through her falls, determined that they wouldn’t disrupt the choreography or flow of her program.

In the second half, she singled her second triple Lutz in more ways than one. Her future self was late or maybe her present self was rushing ahead of the music. Only one of her was on the ice to attempt the jump when she popped it, turning only one revolution in the air before landing.

Shelly’s slightly older self showed up just in time for the side-by-side triple loop. Older Shelly landed a triple. Younger Shelly landed a double instead. Even with the bonus for elements completed in the second half of the program, she was hemorrhaging points.

Her lungs burned. Her body stung from the falls. The ice felt like mud beneath her skates. She’d never been so relieved to reach the combination spin that ended her program. By the time the older Shelly hit her final pose and the younger Shelly jumped back into double time, she’d landed two clean triples out of seven including her final jump, the side-by-side triple Salchow.

She hadn’t exactly covered herself in glory but figure skating audiences were always generous. Their applause thundered across the rink even when someone skated like a human Zamboni. Mom’s disappointment pounded through her head though and she hadn’t even gotten off the ice yet.

Flowers and product placements dotted the kiss and cry area. Shelly and Mr. Song sat on a bench waiting for her score. The backdrop showed mountains and a camera was trained on them, capturing their reactions. Her humiliation had been and would continue to be broadcast worldwide. However, she refused to cry.

“Well, that was a learning experience.” Mr. Song rubbed his hands together. “Day after tomorrow, once we’re back home, we’ll look at the footage and we’ll try it again so we get it right for Nationals.”

“Mom has to be so disappointed in me.” Maybe Shelly would cry after all.

“Don’t start.” Mr. Song crossed his arms over his chest. “You never gave up and you fought for every point. If the entire skate had been like those last thirty seconds, you’d be looking forward to your score right now. I’m sure your mom knows that.”

Her score boomed over the PA system. She’d tumbled from second place to last overall. Skating in double time was stupid. Only two other skaters had attempted it here.

• • • •

After that free skate, of course what Shelly wanted more than anything else in the world was to be strapped into the seat next to Mom’s on the plane trip home. Mom sat by the aisle reading some engineering journal on her ereader. Shelly sat by the window staring at her tablet. Words gathered in dense blocks covered half the screen while a keyboard covered the other half. She’d rather have been sleeping but an analysis of the macaronic language in the works of James Joyce wouldn’t write itself. Shelly kind of wished it would. Taking AP English early hadn’t been her idea.

“I’m sorry, Mom.” Avoiding the free skate from hell any longer would have just made it worse. “I’ll do better at Nationals.”

“It’s okay. I haven’t been reasonable.” Mom reached for her bag sitting under the seat in front of her. She exchanged her ereader for an eye mask and neck pillow. “I was in grad school when I fell in love with Michelle Kwan’s skating. When you were four and decided you wanted to skate, I was so happy, but skaters like her come once in a lifetime. I shouldn’t have expected you to—You won’t skate in double time any more. I’ll talk to Mr. Song when we get home.”

With that, Mom shut off her overhead light then went to sleep. The drone of engines covered up any other whispered conversations, isolating Shelly within her pool of light.

Tears welled in her eyes. Air wouldn’t stay in her lungs and it was all she could do not to sob. She had never wanted to skate in double time and now she didn’t have to. For once, Mom had relented. Shelly should have been relieved, so why did she feel so awful?

Shelly returned to her tablet. Her fingers tapped the keyboard while she blinked away her tears.

• • • •

It had been at least a decade since Mr. Song skated competitively but, in skates, he always looked as though he could land quad Lutzes as a warm up. On the ice, Mr. Song might have been a student waiting for his coach rather than a coach waiting for his student. Only Senior-level skaters trained this early in the morning and, as they warmed up on the ice, Shelly took her time lacing her skates.

Even if she had just come back from a competition, she couldn’t blame how long she was taking on jet-lag. She was stalling and she knew it. Nationals was only six weeks away. This wasn’t the time to argue with Mr. Song, but life didn’t seem to be timing itself for her convenience.

She skated towards Mr. Song. He spotted the time jumper on her wrist then smiled.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“You were the one who said skating the last two minutes in double time wasn’t a bad idea.”

A mock seriousness spread across his face. “Your mother is not someone to be defied.”

“Which is why we’re not telling her.”

“We hadn’t prepared nearly well enough before. It’ll be tougher this time.” He spread his hands, showing her his palms. “Lots of unison work in double time. Do you have time elsewhere in the day to lose? Your mom’s not going to notice that you’re suddenly nowhere to be found for minutes at a time whenever you jump ahead to compensate?”

“Sure, I’ve worked it all out.” In truth, she had no clue. She’d take her chances to jump ahead as she found them.

“And triple run throughs.” If she could skate for twelve minutes straight in practice, she could survive skating six in competition.

“I know.”

“Well, let’s get started then.” Mr. Song grinned as he rubbed his hands and Shelly started cross-stroking around the rink.

The next six weeks lurched by like the stick shift that she couldn’t drive. Between school, all that skating in double time, and the sleep she wasn’t getting, Shelly didn’t have time to wonder if she was doing the right thing.

• • • •

The less Shelly thought about her short program at Nationals, the better. The judges had rather generously placed her sixth, about ten points behind a still recovering Emily Takahashi in first. For the free skate, Shelly had drawn last in the skate order. Her free skate seemed more like a formality they had to plow through than anything to do with deciding who would advance to either Four Continents or Worlds.

The crowd cheered as she skated to center ice. They gasped when a human-shaped flash of gold on the ice turned into Shelly’s future self. Emily Takahashi had backed off skating her entire routine in double time to spare her healing toe, skating only the back half that way as Shelly had also planned. The time jumper on future Shelly’s wrist counted down from just over four minutes. Future her had gone too far back in time. Years seemed to pass before the world stopped teetering for either of them.

The referee signaled a warning. If Shelly didn’t start now, she’d be disqualified.

Future Shelly shrugged as if to say, “Well, nothing to do about it except to think of this as the second half of a double run through.” Future Shelly should have known how this skate would go having already skated it with herself. Realistically, though, if she ever remembered how she skated, Mom wouldn’t have made her watch her own practices. They struck their opening poses then the music started.

Michelle Kwan once said that to skate Lyra Angelica, she just went onto the ice, then thought of angels. Shelly, on the other hand, focused on one element at a time, ticking each off her mental list, then pretending it never happened, especially if it hadn’t gone perfectly.

The two Shellys skated as one, hitting every jump and spin in unison. They glided across the rink etching intricate patterns in swift arcs on the ice. Her lungs burned and her legs grew rubbery. For three minutes and fifty-nine seconds, she was the avenging angel. Her every edge and gesture was determined to prove that she could too skate. She refused to implode on the ice. Not again.

Finally, the two Shellys hit their final pose to the last beat of the music and the younger disappeared with a flash of gold into the past. She might have under-rotated her triple Salchow and skipped some steps in her footwork. The Technical Caller would sort that out via slow-motion video replay after her skate.

The audience exploded into generous, even for Nationals, applause. Flowers wrapped in cellophane, teddy bears, and other stuffed animals fell like thick hail on the ice. Tiny girls, ten years old at most, swarmed the rink collecting it all. Everyone in the audience appeared to be . . . standing?

Shelly bowed. Every breath flayed her lungs and her legs felt like water. Getting to the kiss and cry felt as difficult as her eight minutes of skating. Relief that this horrible season was finally over pushed her off the ice.

It wouldn’t be enough to please Mom, but she’d done the best she could. As far as Shelly was concerned, this skate meant more than any medal at Nationals. If she left the sport now, it’d be on a high note. Maybe she would quit. Now that her season was over, she’d have some time to think about it.

Mr. Song sat next to Shelly. He steepled his fingers, an amused expression on his face.

“You forgot to recalibrate your time jumper after this morning’s practice session?” His amusement broke into a smile. “You realize now that the judges know what you’re capable of, they’re going to expect this every time.”

“That’s not funny.” She’d look peeved at him except they were under the glare of a camera, waiting to catch her reaction to her score, if they ever got around to announcing it. “At least I’ll never have to do that again.”

“Excuse me?” Mr. Song stared up at a scoreboard that steadfastly refused to update with Shelly’s scores. “Come Monday, we work on your short program and fine tune this free skate. We gave away a few points you’ll need for Worlds.”

Her scores boomed over the PA system and scrolled onto the scoreboard. They were too high. She’d won the free skate, beating Emily Takahashi by just under ten points, and placed second overall with no one left to skate. If she’d only fully rotated that Salchow, she might have won the whole thing. The audience exploded into applause again.

Her hands covered her mouth in surprise. She stood and waved to the audience before sitting down again.

“How?” The inevitable fell on Shelly like a boulder. The USFSA was going to send her to both Four Continents and Worlds. So much for quitting.

“Well, you didn’t win because you didn’t quite fill the short program-sized hole you’d dug for yourself.” Mr. Song shrugged. “In any case, Ms. Takahashi will decline her inevitable Four Continents assignment. The USFSA will want her to fully heal so that she can skate her entire program in double time at Worlds. That means you, Shelly, are now America’s best chance to defend its gold medal at Four Continents. Congratulations.”

“Oh.” The world lurched beneath her. She gripped her chair for support.

“You look so disappointed. Yes, we both know you could have won this, but placing second and being named to the Worlds team in your second season as a Senior is not a bad thing.” Mr. Song gently patted Shelly’s back. “Don’t worry about your mom. She’ll see that.”

Winning this thing had been the last thing on Shelly’s mind. And she’d given up on the notion of pleasing Mom.

A reporter came up to Shelly. Then another. And then another. Suddenly, everyone wanted to interview her. She found herself wishing that Mom would barge in to tell her what to say.

• • • •

After the medal ceremony, Shelly jumped ahead to compensate for the double time during her free skate. It cost her only a moment to create four minutes when no one could find her. By the time she sneaked out of the rink, the crowd was breaking up. People were heading to the parking garage, to the subway, or to the shuttle back to the hotel. Lamps, benches, and piles of snow lined the way. Sparks of gold twinkled in the distance, undoubtedly from people time jumping back to catch the shuttle. Mom and Mr. Song sat on a bench scanning the crowd. Her silver medal still lay cold in her pocket. It ought to have a chance to warm up before she faced Mom. Not only had Shelly disobeyed her, but she had done so in spectacular fashion and on national TV. If she’d won, she might have gotten away with it. Stupid triple Salchow.

“Shelly.” Mr. Song waved then jogged to her. Mom pushed against the tide of the shuttle-bound in the distance. “You don’t need to avoid your mom.”

“Um . . . I—”

“You know she’s so proud of you.” He smiled at the disbelief on her face. “Really, she was just saying—”

“何穎珊, don’t worry me like that. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Mom planted herself next to Mr. Song. “You skated your entire program in double time.”

“Yes, Mom.” Shelly stared at her feet. The time of reckoning for disobeying Mom had come.

“What has Mr. Song told you about your triple Salchow? You could have beat Emily Takahashi.” Mom paused to catch her breath. “He and I were just talking about the rest of this season and the next season. A gold at Four Continents is a given but Worlds—”

“Hey, that’s Emily.” Shelly pointed at a clump wearing thick, hooded coats. One of them might have been Emily. “I should go congratulate her.”

She ran off before Mom could say otherwise. Time was awasting if she wanted to check out what Mr. Song had said. The time jumper couldn’t take you back any further than about five minutes. She circled around to hide behind the pile of snow next to the bench where Mom and Mr. Song had talked, then squeezed the time jumper latched to her wrist.

Her gaze faded from gold into benches, lamps and piles of snow although the air still glittered with time jumping. Mr. Song sat on the bench. Mom paced around it, marking a ring of cement on the snow-dusted path. Shelly caught them in middle of small talk about the weather, Dad, and Mr. Song’s boyfriend. Eventually, the conversation drifted to Worlds, Mom’s plans for global domination of ladies’ figure skating, and Shelly.

“I’ve known she was up to something for weeks. She can’t hide her jumps forward in time as well as she thinks she can.” Mom stopped pacing and her arms fell to her sides. “I couldn’t be prouder of her. Even that first novice competition, she was so awful but she tried so hard. She’s everything I could have asked for in a daughter.”

Mom had never spoken those words to Shelly, ever. As Mom nattered on, Shelly’s hand moved to the time jumper on her wrist, waiting for its display to count down to zero so she could jump back in time again. Even though she was now the favorite to win Four Continents, Mom’s words to her were about her under-rotated triple Salchow and losing to Emily Takahashi. The only way she’d ever hear how proud Mom was of her again in person was to jump back in time before the moment slipped too far back for her time jumper to reach.

Shelly looked down the path. Another Shelly hid behind a street lamp, listening.

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John Chu

John Chu

John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Uncanny, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and His story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.