Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Time Travel Club

Nobody could decide what should be the first object to travel through time. Malik offered his car keys. Jerboa held up an action figure. But then Lydia suggested her one-year sobriety coin, and it seemed too perfect to pass up. After all, the coin had a unit of time on it, as if it came from a realm where time really was a denomination of currency. And they were about to break the bank of time forever, if this worked.

Lydia handed over the coin, no longer shiny due to endless thumb-worrying. And then she had a small anxiety attack. “Just as long as I get it back,” she said, trying to keep the edge out of her voice.

“You will,” said Madame Alberta with a smile. “This coin, we send a mere one minute into the future. It reappears in precisely the same place from which it disappears.”

Lydia would have been nervous about the first test of the time machine in Madame Alberta’s musty dry laundry room in any case. After all they’d been through to make this happen, the stupid thing had to work. But now, she felt like a piece of herself—a piece she had fought for—was about to vanish, and she would need to have faith. She sucked at having faith.

Madame Alberta took the coin and placed it in the airtight glass cube—six by six by six, that they’d built where the washer/dryer were supposed to be. The balsa-walled laundry room was so crammed with equipment, there was scarcely room for four people to hunch over together. Once the coin was sitting on the floor of the cube, Madame Alberta walked back towards the main piece of equipment, which looked like a million vacuum cleaner hoses attached to a giant slow-cooker.

“I keep thinking about what you were saying before,” Lydia said to Malik, trying to distract herself. “About wanting to stand outside history and see the empires rising and falling from a great height, instead of being swept along by the waves. But what if this power to send things, and people, back and forth across history makes us the masters of reality? What if we can make the waves change direction, or turn back entirely? What then?”

“I chose your group with great care,” Madame Alberta. “As I have said. You have the wisdom to use this technology properly, all of you.”

Madame Alberta pulled a big lever. A whoosh of purple neon vapor into the glass cube, followed by a “klorrrrrp” sound like someone opening a soda can and burping at the same time—in exactly the way that might suggest they’d had enough soda already—and the coin was gone.

“Wow,” said Malik. His eyebrows went all the way up so his forehead concertina-ed, and his short dreads did a fractal scatter.

“It just vanished,” said Jerboa, bouncing with excitement, floppy hat flopping. “It just . . . It’s on its way.”

Lydia wanted to hold her breath, but there was so little air in here that she was already light-headed. This whole wooden-beamed staircase-flanked basement area felt like a soup of fumes.

Lydia really needed to pee, but she didn’t want to go upstairs and risk missing the sudden reappearance of her coin, which would be newer than everything else in the world by a minute. She held it, swaying and squirming. She looked down at her phone, and there were just about thirty seconds left. She wondered if they should count down. But that was probably too tacky. She really couldn’t breathe at this point, and she was starting to taste candyfloss and everything smelled white.

“Just ten seconds left,” Malik said. And then they did count down, after all. “Nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . . five! Four! Three! Two! ONE!”

They all stopped and stared at the cube, which remained empty. There was no “soda-gas” noise, no sign of an object breaking back into the physical world from some netherspace.

“Um,” said Jerboa. “Did we count down too soon?”

“It is possible my calculations,” said Madame Alberta, waving her hands in distress. Her fake accent was slipping even more than usual. “But no. I mean, I quadruple-checked. They cannot be wrong.”

“Give it a minute or two longer,” said Malik. “I’m sure it’ll turn up.” As if it was a missing sock in the dryer, instead of a coin in the cube that sat where a dryer ought to be.

They gave it another half an hour, as the knot inside Lydia got bigger and bigger. At one point, Lydia went upstairs to pee in Madame Alberta’s tiny bathroom, facing a calendar of exotic bird paintings. And eventually, Lydia went outside to stand in the front yard, facing the one-lane highway, cursing. Why had she volunteered her coin? And now, she would never see it again.

Lydia went home and spent an hour on the phone processing with her sponsor, Nate, who kept reassuring her, in a voice thick as pork rinds, that the coin was just a token and she could get another one and it was no big deal. These things have no innate power, they’re just symbols. She didn’t mention the “time machine” thing, but kept imagining her coin waiting to arrive, existing in some moment that hadn’t been reached yet.

Even after all of Nate’s best talk-downs, Lydia couldn’t sleep. And at three in the morning, Lydia was still thinking about her one-year coin, floating in a state of indeterminacy—and then it hit her, and she knew the answer. She turned on the light, sat up in bed and stared at the wall of ring-pull talking-animal toys facing her bed. Thinking it through again and again, until she was sure.

At last, Lydia couldn’t help phoning Jerboa, who answered the phone still half asleep and in a bit of a panic. “What is it?” Jerboa said. “What’s wrong? I can find my pants, I swear I can put on some pants and then I’ll fix whatever.”

“It’s fine, nothing’s wrong, no need for pants,” Lydia said. “Sorry to wake you. Sorry, I didn’t realize how late it was.” She was totally lying, but it was too late anyhow. “But I was thinking. Madame Alberta said the coin moved forward in time one minute, but it stayed in the same physical location. Right?”

“That’s right,” said Jerboa. “Same place, different time. Only moving in one dimension.”

“But,” said Lydia. “What if the Earth wasn’t in the same place when the coin arrived? I mean . . . Doesn’t the Earth move around the sun?”

“Yeah, sure. And the Earth rotates. And the sun moves around the galactic disk. And the galaxy is moving too, towards Andromeda and the Great Attractor,” said Jerboa. “And space itself is probably moving around. There’s no such thing as a fixed point in space. But Madame Alberta covered that, remember? According to Einstein, the other end of the rift in time ought to obey Newton’s first law, conservation of momentum. Which means the coin would still follow the Earth’s movement, and arrive at the same point. Except . . . Wait a minute!”

Lydia waited a minute. After which, Jerboa still hadn’t said anything else. Lydia had to look at her phone to make sure she hadn’t gotten hung up on. “Except what?” she finally said.

“Except that . . . the Earth’s orbit and rotation are momentum, plus gravity. Like, we actually accelerate towards the sun as part of our orbit, or else our momentum would just carry us out into space. And Madame Alberta said her time machine worked by opting out of the fundamental forces, right? And gravity is one of those. Which would mean . . . Wait a minute, wait a minute.” Another long, weird pause, except this time Lydia could hear Jerboa breathing heavily and muttering sotto voce.

Then Jerboa said, “I think I know where your medallion is, Lydia.”

“Where?”

“Right where we left it. On the roof of Madame Alberta’s neighbor’s house.”

• • • •

Lydia had less than ninety days of sobriety under her belt, when she first met the Time Travel Club. They met in the same Unitarian basement as Lydia’s twelve-step group: a grimy cellar, with a huge steam pipe running along one wall and intermittent gray carpeting that looked like a scale map of plate tectonics. Pictures of purple hands holding a green globe and dancing scribble children hung askew, by strands of peeling Scotch tape. Boiling hot in summer, drafty in winter, it was a room that seemed designed to make you feel desperate and trapped. But all the twelve-steppers laughed a lot, in between crying, and afterwards everybody shared cigarettes and sometimes pie. Lydia didn’t feel especially close to any of the other twelve-steppers (and she didn’t smoke) but she felt a desperate lifeboat solidarity with them.

The Time Travel Club always showed up just as the last people from Lydia’s twelve-step meeting were dragging their asses up out of there. Most of the time travelers wore big dark coats and furry boots that seemed designed to look equally ridiculous in any time period. Lydia wasn’t even sure why she stayed behind for one of their meetings, since it was a choice between watching people pretend to be time travelers and eating pie. Nine times out of ten, pie would have won over fake time travel. But Lydia needed to sit quietly by herself and think about the mess she’d made of her life before she tried to drive, and the Time Travel Club was as good a place as any.

Malik was a visitor from the distant past—the Kushite Kingdom of roughly 2,700 years ago. The Kushites were a pretty swell people, who made an excellent palm-wine that tasted sort of like cognac. And now Malik commuted between the Kushite era, the present day, and the thirty-second century, when there was going to be a neo-Kushite revival going on and the dark, well-cheekboned Malik would become a bit of a celebrity.

The androgynous and pronoun-free Jerboa looked tiny and bashful inside a huge brown hat and high coat collar. Jerboa spent a lot of time in the Year One Million, a time period where the parties were excellent and people were considerably less hung up on gender roles. Jerboa also hung out in the 1920s and the early 1600s, on occasion.

And then there was Normando, a Kenny Rogers-looking dude who was constantly warping back to this one party in 1973 where he’d met this girl, who had left with an older man just as Young Normando was going to ask her to bug out with him. And now Normando was convinced he could be that older man. If he could just find that one girl again.

Lydia managed to shrink into the background at the first Time Travel Club meeting, without having to say anything. But a week later, she decided to stick around for another meeting, because it was better than just going home alone and nobody was going for pie this time.

This time, the others asked Lydia about her own journeys through time, and she said she didn’t have a time machine and if she did, she would just use it to make the itchy insomniac nights end sooner, so she could wander alone in the sun rather than hide alone in the dark.

Oh, they said.

Lydia felt guilty about harshing their shared fantasy like that, to the point where she spent the next week obsessing about what a jerk she’d been and even had to call Nate once or twice to report that she was a terrible person and she was struggling with some Dark Thoughts. She vowed not to crash the Time Travel Club meeting again, because she was not going to be a disruptive influence.

Instead, though, when the twelve-step meeting ended and everybody else straggled out, Lydia said the same thing she’d said the previous couple weeks: “Nah, you guys go on. I’m just going to sit for a spell.”

When the time travelers arrived, and Malik’s baby face lit up with his opening spiel about how this was a safe space for people to share their space/time experiences, Lydia stood up suddenly in the middle of his intro, and blurted: “I’m a pirate. I sail a galleon in the nineteenth century, I’m the first mate. They call me Bad Bessie, even though I’m named Lydia. Also, I do extreme solar-sail racing a couple hundred years from now. But that’s only on weekends. Sorry I didn’t say last week. I was embarrassed because piracy is against the law.” And then she sat down, very fast. Everybody applauded and clapped her on the back and thanked her for sharing. This time around, there were a half dozen people in the group, up from the usual four or five.

Lydia wasn’t really a pirate, though she did work at a pirate-themed adult bookstore near the interstate called the Lusty Doubloon, with the O’s in “Doubloon” forming the absurdly globular breasts of its tricorner-hatted mascot. Lydia got pretty tired of shooting down pick-up lines from the type of men who couldn’t figure out how to find porn on the internet. Something about Lydia’s dishwater-blonde hair and smattering of monster tattoos apparently did it for those guys. The shower in Lydia’s studio apartment was always pretty revolting, because the smell of bleach or Lysol reminded her of the video booths at work.

Anyway, after that, Lydia started sticking around for Time Travel Club every week, as a chaser for her twelve-step meeting. It helped get her back on an even keel so she could drive home without shivering so hard she couldn’t see the road. She even started hanging out with Malik and Jerboa socially—Malik was willing to quit talking about palm wine around her, and they all started going out for fancy tea at the place at the mall, the one that put the leaves inside a paper sachet that you had to steep for exactly five minutes or Everything Would Be Ruined. Lydia and Jerboa went to an all-ages concert together, and didn’t care that they were about ten years older than everybody else there—they’d obviously misaligned the temporal stabilizers and arrived too late, but still just in time. “Just in time” was Jerboa’s favorite catchphrase, and it was never said without a glimpse of sharp little teeth, a vigorous nod, and a widening of Jerboa’s brown-green eyes.

For six months, the Time Travelers’ meeting slowly became Lydia’s favorite thing every week, and these weirdos became her particular gang. Until one day, Madame Alberta showed up and brought the one thing that’s guaranteed to ruin any Time Travel Club ever: an actual working time machine.

• • • •

Lydia’s one-year coin was exactly where Jerboa had said it would be: on the roof of the house next door to Madame Alberta’s, nestled in some dead leaves in the crook between brick gable and the upward slope of rooftop. She managed to borrow the neighbor’s ladder, by sort of explaining. The journey through the space/time continuum didn’t seem to have messed up Lydia’s coin at all, but it had gotten a layer of grime from sitting overnight. She cleaned it with one of the sanitizing wipes at work, before returning it to its usual front pocket.

About a week later, Lydia met up with Malik and Jerboa for bubble tea at this place in the Asian Mall, where they also served peanut honey toast and squid balls and stuff. Lydia liked the feeling of the squidgy tapioca blobs gliding up the fat straw and then falling into her teeth. Alien larvae. Never to hatch. Alien tadpoles squirming to death in her tummy.

None of them had shown up for Time Travel Club, the previous night. Normando had called them all in a panic, wanting to know where everybody was. Somehow Malik had thought Jerboa would show up, and Jerboa had figured Lydia would stick around after her other meeting.

“It’s just . . .” Malik looked into his mug of regular old coffee, with a tragic expression accentuated by hot steam. “What’s the point of sharing our silly make-believe stories about being time travelers, when we built an actual real time machine, and it was no good?”

“Well, the machine worked,” Jerboa said, looking at the dirty cracked tile floor. “It’s just that you can’t actually use it to visit the past or the future, in person. Lydia’s coin was displaced upwards at an angle of about thirty-six degrees by the Earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun. The further forward and backward in time you go, the more extreme the spatial displacement, because the distance traveled is the square of the time traveled. Send something an hour and a half forward in time, and you’d be over 400 kilometers away from Earth. Or deep underground, depending on the time of day.”

“So if we wanted to travel a few years ahead,” Lydia said, “we would need to send a spaceship. So it could fly back to Earth from wherever it appeared.”

“I doubt you’d be able to transport an object that size,” said Jerboa. “From what Madame Alberta explained, anything more than about 216 cubic feet or about 200 pounds, and the energy costs go up exponentially.” Madame Alberta hadn’t answered the door when Lydia went to get her coin back. None of them had heard from Madame Alberta since then, either.

Not only that, but once you were talking about traversing years rather than days, then other factors—such as the sun’s acceleration toward the center of the galaxy and the galaxy’s acceleration towards the Virgo Supercluster—came more into play. You might not ever find the Earth again.

They all sat for a long time, listening to the Canto-Pop and their own internal monologues about failure. Lydia was thinking that an orbit is a fragile thing, after all. You take centripetal force for granted at your peril. She could see Malik, Jerboa, and herself preparing to drift away from each other once and for all. Free to follow their separate trajectories. Separate futures. She had a clawing certainty that this was the last time the three of them would ever see each other, and she was going to lose the Time Travel Club forever.

And then it hit her, a way to turn this into something good. And keep the group together.

“Wait a minute,” said Lydia. “So we don’t have a machine that lets a person visit the past or future. But don’t people spend kind of a lot of money to launch objects into space? Like, satellites and stuff?”

“Yes,” said Jerboa. “It costs tons of money just to lift a pound of material out of our gravity well.” And then for the first time that day, Jerboa looked up from the floor and shook off the curtain of black hair so you could actually see the makings of a grin. “Oh. Yeah. I see what you’re saying. We don’t have a time machine, we have a cheap, simple way to launch things into space. You just send something a few hours into the future, and it’s in orbit. We can probably calculate exact distances and trajectories, with a little practice. The hard part will be achieving a stable orbit.”

“So?” Malik said. “I don’t see how that helps anything . . . Oh. You’re suggesting we turn this into a money-making opportunity.”

Lydia couldn’t help thinking of the fact that her truck needed an oil change and a new headpipe and four new tires and the ability to start when she turned the key in the ignition. And she needed never to go near the Lusty Doubloon again. “It’s better than nothing,” she said. “Until we figure out what else this machine can do.”

“Look at it this way,” Jerboa said to Malik. “If we are able to launch a payload into orbit on a regular basis, then that’s a repeatable result. A repeatable result is the first step towards being able to do something else. And we can use the money to reinvest in the project.”

“Well,” Malik said. And then he broke out into a smile, too. Radiant. “If we can talk Madame Alberta into it, then sure.”

They phoned Madame Alberta a hundred times and she never picked up. At last, they just went to her house and kept banging on the door until she opened up.

Madame Alberta was drunk. Not just regular drunk, but long-term drunk. Like she had gotten drunk a week ago, and never sobered up. Lydia took one look at her, one whiff of the booze fumes, and had to go outside and dry heave. She sat, bent double, on Madame Alberta’s tiny lawn, almost within view of the St. Ignatius College science lab that they’d stolen all that gear from a few months earlier. From inside the house, she heard Malik and Jerboa trying to explain to Madame Alberta that they had figured out what happened to the coin. And how they could turn it into kind of a good thing.

They were having a hard time getting through to her. Madame Alberta’s fauxropean accent was basically gone, and she sounded like a bitter old drunk lady from New Jersey who just wanted to drink herself to death.

Eventually, Malik came out and put one big hand gently on Lydia’s shoulder. “You should go home,” he said. “Jerboa and I will help her sober up, and then we’ll talk her through this. I promise we won’t make any decisions until you’re there to take part.”

Lydia nodded and got in her rusty old Ford, which rattled and groaned and finally came to a semblance of life long enough to let her roll back down the highway to her crappy apartment. Good thing it was pretty much downhill all the way.

• • • •

When Madame Alberta first visited the Time Travel Club, nobody quite knew what to make of her. She had olive skin, black hair, and a black beauty mark on the left side of her face, which tended to change its location every time Lydia saw her. And she wore a dark headscarf, or maybe a snood, and a long black dress with a slit up one side.

That first meeting, her Eurasian accent was the thickest and fakest it would ever be: “I have the working theory of the time machine. And the prototype that is, how you say, half-built. I need a few more pairs of hands to help me complete the assembly, but also I require the ethical advice.”

“Like a steering committee,” said Jerboa, perking up with a quick sideways head motion.

“Even so,” said Madame Alberta. “Much like the Unitarian Church upstairs, the time machine has need of a steering committee.”

At first, everybody assumed Madame Alberta was just sharing her own time-travel fantasy—albeit one that was a lot more elaborate, and involved a lot more delayed gratification, than everybody else’s. Still, the rest of the meeting was sort of muted. Lydia was all set to share her latest experiences with solar-sail demolition derby, the most dangerous sport that would ever exist. And Malik was having drama with the Babylonians, either in the past or the future, Lydia wasn’t sure which. But Madame Alberta had a quiet certainty that threw the group out of whack.

“I leave you now,” said Madame Alberta, bowing and curtseying in a single weird arm-sweeping motion that made her appear to be the master of a particularly esoteric drunken martial arts style. “Take the next week to discuss my proposition. Be aware, though: This will be the most challenging of ventures.” She whooshed out of the room, long flowy dress trailing behind her.

Nobody actually spent the week between meetings debating whether they wanted to help Madame Alberta build her time machine—instead, Lydia kept asking the other members whether they could find an excuse to kick her out of the group. “She freaks me out, man,” Lydia said on the phone to Malik on Sunday evening. “She seems for real mentally not there.”

“I don’t know,” Malik said. “I mean, we’ve never kicked anybody out before. There was that one guy who seemed like he had a pretty serious drug problem last year, with his whole astral projection shtick. But he stopped coming on his own, after a couple times.”

“I just don’t like it,” said Lydia. “I have a terrible feeling she’s going to ruin everything.” She didn’t add that she really needed this group to continue the way it was, that these people were becoming her only friends, and the only reason she felt like the future might actually really exist for her. She didn’t want to get needy or anything.

“Eh,” said Malik. “It’s a time travel club. If she becomes a problem, we’ll just go back in time and change our meeting place last year, so she won’t find us.”

“Good point.”

It was Jerboa who found the article in the Berkeley Daily Voice—a physics professor who lectured at Berkeley and also worked at Lawrence Livermore had gone missing in highly mysterious circumstances, six months earlier. And the photo of the vanished Professor Martindale—dark hair, laughing gray eyes, narrow mouth—looked rather a lot like Madame Alberta, except without any beauty mark or giant scarf.

Jerboa emailed the link to the article to Lydia and Malik. “Do you think . . .?” the email read.

The next meeting came around. Besides the three core members and Madame Alberta, there was Normando, who had finally tracked down that hippie chick in 1973 and was now going on the same first date with her over and over again, arriving five minutes earlier each time to pick her up. Lydia did not think that would actually work in real life.

The others waited until Normando had run out of steam describing his latest interlude with Starshine Ladyswirl and wandered out to smoke a (vaguely postcoital) cigarette, before they started interrogating Madame Alberta. How did this alleged time machine work? Why was she building it in her laundry room instead of at a proper research institution? Had she absconded from Berkeley with some government-funded research, and, if so, were they all going to jail if they helped her?

“Let us say, for the sake of the argument,” Madame Alberta played up her weird accent even as her true identity as a college professor from Camden was brought to light, “that I had developed some of the theory of the time travel while on the payroll of the government. Yes? In that hypothetical situation, what would be the ethical thing to do? You are my steering committee, please to tell me.”

“Well,” Malik said. “I don’t know that you want the government to have a time machine.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jerboa said. “They already have warrantless wiretaps and indefinite detention. Imagine if they could go back in time and spy on you in the past. Or kill people as little children.”

“Well, but,” Lydia said, “I mean, wouldn’t it still be your responsibility to share your research?” But the others were already on Madame Alberta’s side.

“As to how it works,” Madame Alberta reached into her big black trench coat and pulled out a big rolled-up set of plans covered in equations and drawings, which meant nothing to anybody. “Shall we say that it was the accidental discovery? One was actually working on a project for the Department of Energy aimed at finding a way to eliminate the atomic waste. And instead, one stumbled on a method of using spent uranium to create an opening two Planck lengths wide, lasting a few fractions of a microsecond, with the other end a few seconds in the future.”

“Uh huh,” Lydia said. “So . . . you could create a wormhole too tiny to see, that only allowed you to travel a few seconds forward in time. That’s, um . . . useful, I guess.”

“But then! One discovers that one might be able to generate a much larger temporal rift, opting out of the fundamental forces, and it would be stable enough to move a person or a moderate-sized object either forward or backward in time, anywhere from a few minutes to a few thousand years, in the exact same physical location,” said Madame Alberta. “One begins to panic, imagining this power in the hands of the government. This is all the hypothetical situation, of course. In reality, one knows nothing of this Professor Martindale of whom you speaks.”

“But,” said Lydia. “I mean, why us? I mean, assuming you really do have the makings of a time machine in your laundry room. Why not reach out to some actual scientists?” Then she answered her own question: “Because you would be worried they would tell the government. Okay, but the world is full of smart amateurs and clever geeks. And us? I mean, I work the day shift at a . . .” she tried to think of a way to say “pirate-themed sex shop” that didn’t sound quite so horrible. “And Malik is a physical therapist. Jerboa has a physics degree, sure, but that was years ago, and more recently Jerboa’s been working as a case worker for teenagers with sexual abuse issues. Which is totally great. But I’m sure you can find bigger experts out there.”

“One has chosen with the greatest of care,” Madame Alberta fixed Lydia with an intense stare, like she could see all the way into Lydia’s damaged core. (Or maybe, like someone who was used to wearing glasses but had decided to pretend she had 20/20 vision.) “You are all good people, with the strong moral centers. You have given much thought to the time travel, and yet you speak of it without any avarice in your hearts. Not once have I heard any of you talk of using the time travel for wealth or personal advancement.”

“Well, except for Normando using it to get in Ladyswirl’s pants,” said Malik.

“Even as you say, except for Normando.” Madame Alberta did another one of her painful-to-watch bow-curtseys. “So. What is your decision? Will you join me in this great and terrible undertaking, or not?”

What could they do? They all raised their hands and said that they were in.

• • • •

Ricky was the Chief Fascination Evangelist for Garbo.com, a web startup for rich paranoid people who wanted to be left alone. (They were trying to launch a premium service where you could watch yourself via satellite 24/7, to make sure nobody else was watching you.) Ricky wore denim shirts, with the sleeves square-folded to the elbows, and white silk ties with black corduroys, and his neck funneled out of the blue-jean collar and led to a round pale head, shaved except for wispy sideburns. He wore steel-rimmed glasses. He had a habit of swinging his arms back and forth and clapping his hands when he was excited, like when he talked about getting a satellite into orbit.

“Everybody else says it’ll take months to get our baby into space,” Ricky told Malik and Lydia for the fifth or sixth time. “The Kazakhs don’t even know when they can do it. But you say you can get our Garbo-naut 5000 into orbit . . .”

“. . . next week,” Malik said yet again. “Maybe ten days from now.” He canted his palms in mid-air, like it was no big deal. Launching satellites, whatever. Just another day, putting stuff into orbit.

“Whoa.” Ricky arm-clapped in his chair. “That is just insane. Seriously. Like, nuts.”

“We are a hungry new company.” Malik gave the same bright smile that he used to announce the start of every Time Travel Club meeting. They had been lucky to find this guy. “We want to build our customer base from the ground up. All the way from the ground into space. Because we’re a space company. Right? Of course we are. And did I mention we’re hungry?”

“Hungry is good.” Ricky seemed to be studying Malik, and the giant photo of MJL Aerospace’s non-existent rocket, a retrofitted Soyuz. “The hungry survive, the fat starve. Or something. So when do I get to see this rocket of yours?”

“You can’t, sorry,” Malik said. “Our, uh, chief rocket scientist is kind of leery about letting people see our proprietary new fuel system technology up close. But here’s a picture of it.” He gestured at the massive rocket picture on the fake-mahogany wall behind his desk, which they’d spent hours creating in Photoshop and After Effects. MJL Aerospace was subletting ultra-cheap office space in an industrial park, just up the highway from the Lusty Doubloon.

Malik, Lydia, and Jerboa had been excited about becoming a fake rocket company, until they’d started considering the practical problems. For one thing, nobody will hire you to launch a satellite unless you’ve already launched a satellite before—it’s like how you can’t get an entry-level job unless you’ve already had work experience.

Plus, they weren’t entirely sure that they could get a satellite into a stable orbit, which was one of the dozen reasons Malik was sweating. They could definitely place a satellite at different points in orbit, and different trajectories, by adjusting the time of day, the distance traveled, and the location on Earth they started from. But after that, the satellite wouldn’t be moving fast enough to stay in orbit on its own. It would need extra boosters, to get up to speed. Jerboa thought they could send a satellite way higher—around 42,000 kilometers away from Earth—and then use relatively small rockets to speed it up to the correct velocity as it slowly dropped to the correct orbit. But even if that worked, it would require Garbo.com to customize the Garbo-naut 5000 quite a bit. And Madame Alberta had severe doubts.

“Sorry, man,” said Ricky. “I’m not sure I can get my people to authorize a satellite launch based on just seeing a picture of the rocket. It’s a nice picture, though. Good sense of composition. Like, the clouds look really pretty, with that one flock of birds in the distance. Poetic, you know.”

“Of course you can see the rocket,” Lydia interjected. She was sitting off to one side taking notes on the meeting, wearing cheap pantyhose in a forty-dollar swivel chair. With puffy sleeves covering her tattoos (one for every country she’d ever visited.) “Just maybe not before next week’s launch. If you’re willing to wait a few months, we can arrange a site visit and stuff. We just can’t show you the rocket before our next launch window.”

“Right,” Malik said. “If you still want to launch next week, though, we can give you a sixty-percent discount.”

“Sixty percent?” Ricky said, suddenly seeming interested again.

“Sixty-five percent,” Malik said. “We’re a young hungry company. We have a lot to prove. Our business model is devouring the weak. And we hate to launch with spare capacity.”

Maybe going straight to sixty-five percent was a mistake, or maybe the “devouring the weak” thing had been too much. In any case, Ricky seemed uneasy again. “Huh,” he said. “So how many test launches have you guys done? My friend who works for NASA says every rocket launch in the world gets tracked.”

“We’ve done a slew of test launches,” Malik said. “Like, a dozen. But we have some proprietary stealth technology, so people probably missed them.” And then, he went way off script. “Our company founder, Augustus Marzipan IV, grew up around rockets. His uncle was Wernher von Braun’s wine steward. So rockets are in his blood.” Ricky’s frown got more and more pinched.

“Well,” Ricky said at last, standing up from his cheap metal chair. “I will definitely bring your proposal to our Senior Visionizer, Terry. But I have a feeling the V.C.s aren’t going to want to pay for a launch without kicking the tires. I’m not the one who writes the checks, you know. If I wrote the checks, a lot of things would be different.” And then he paused, probably imagining all the things that would happen if he wrote the checks.

“When Augustus Marzipan was only five years old, his pet Dalmatian, Henry, was sent into space. Never to return,” said Malik, as if inventing more stories would cushion his fall off the cliff he’d already walked over. “That’s where our commitment to safety comes from.”

“That’s great,” said Ricky. “I love dogs.” He was already halfway out the door.

As soon as Ricky was gone, Malik sagged as though the air had gone out of him. He rubbed his brow with one listless hand. “We’re a young hungry company,” he said. “We’re a hungry young company. Which way sounds better? I can’t tell.”

“That could have gone worse,” Lydia said.

“I can’t do this,” Malik said. “I just can’t. I’m sorry. I am good at pretending for fun. I just can’t do it for money. I’m really sorry.”

Lydia felt like the worst person in the world, even as she said: “Lots of people start out pretending for fun, and then move into pretending for money. That’s the American dream.” The sun was already going down behind the cement fountain outside, and she realized she was going to be late for her twelve-step group soon. She started pulling her coat and purse and scarf together. “Hey, I gotta run. I’ll see you at Time Travel Club, okay?”

“I think I’m going to skip it,” Malik said. “I can’t. I just . . . I can’t.”

“What?” Lydia felt like if Malik didn’t come to Time Travel Club, it would be the proof that something was seriously wrong and their whole foundation was splitting apart. And it would be provably her fault.

“I’m just too exhausted. Sorry.”

Lydia came over and sat on the desk, so she could see Malik’s face behind his hand. “Come on,” she pleaded. “Time Travel Club is your baby. We can’t just have a meeting without you. That would be weird. Come on. We won’t even talk about being a fake aerospace company. We couldn’t talk about that in front of Normando, anyway.”

Malik sighed, like he was going to argue. Then he lifted the loop of his tie all the way off, now that he was done playing CEO. For a second, his rep-stripe tie was a halo. “Okay, fine,” he said. “It’ll be good to hang out and not talk business for a while.”

“Yeah, exactly. It’ll be mellow,” Lydia said. She felt the terror receding, but not entirely.

Normando was freaking out, because his girlfriend in 1973 had dumped him. (Long story short, his strategy of arriving earlier and earlier for the same first date had backfired.) A couple of other semi-regulars showed up too, including Betty the Cyborg from the Dawn of Time. And Madame Alberta showed up too, even though she hadn’t ever shown any interest in visiting their aerospace office. She sat in the corner, studying the core members of the group, maybe to judge whether she’d chosen wisely. As if she could somehow go back and change that decision, which of course she couldn’t.

Malik tried to talk about his last trip to the thirty-second century. But he kept staring at his CEO shoes and saying things like, “The neo-Babylonians were giving us grief. But we were young and hungry.” And then trailing off, like his heart just wasn’t in it.

Jerboa saw Malik running out of steam, and jumped in. “I met Christopher Marlowe. He told me that his version of Faust originally ended with Dr. Faust and Helen of Troy running away together and teaching geometrically complex hand-dances in Shropshire, and they made him change it.” Jerboa talked very fast, like an addict trying to stay high. Or a comedian trying not to get booed offstage. “He told me to call him ‘Kit,’ and showed me the difference between a doublet and a singlet. A doublet is not two singlets, did you know that?”

Sitting in the Unitarian basement, under the purple dove hands, Lydia watched Malik starting to say things and then just petering out, with a shrug or a shake of the head, and Jerboa rattling on and not giving anybody else a chance to talk. Guilt.

And then, just as Lydia was crawling out of her skin, Madame Alberta stood up. “I have a thing to confess,” she said.

Malik and Lydia stared up at her, fearing she was about to blow the whistle on their scam. Jerboa stopped breathing.

“I am from an alternative timeline,” Madame Alberta said. “It is the world where the American Revolution did not happen, and the British Empire had the conquest of all of South America. The Americas, Africa, Asia—the British ruled all. Until the rest of Europe launched the great world war to stop the British imperialism. And Britain discovered the nuclear weapons and Europe burned, to ashes. I travel many times, I travel through time, to try and change history. But instead, I find myself here, in this other universe, and I can never return home.”

“Uh,” Malik said. “Thanks for sharing.” He looked relieved and weirded out.

At last, Madame Alberta explained: “It is the warning. Sometimes you have the power to change the world. But power is not an opportunity. It is a choice.”

After that, nobody had much to say. Malik and Jerboa didn’t look at Lydia or each other as they left, and nobody was surprised when the Time Travel Club’s meeting was cancelled the following week, or when the club basically ceased to exist some time after that.

• • • •

Malik, Jerboa, and Lydia sat in the front of Malik’s big van on the grassy roadside, waiting for Madame Alberta to come back and tell them where they were going. Madame Alberta supposedly knew where they could dig up some improperly buried spent uranium from the power plant, and the back of the van was full of pretty good safety gear that Madame Alberta had scared up for them. The faceplates of the suits glared up at Lydia from their uncomfortable resting place. The three of them were psyching themselves up to go and possibly irradiate the shit out of themselves.

Worth it, if the thing they were helping to build in Madame Alberta’s laundry room was a real time machine and not just another figment.

“You guys never even asked,” Lydia said around one in the morning, when they were all starting to wonder if Madame Alberta was going to show up. “I mean, about me, and why I was in that twelve-step group before the Time Travel Club meetings. You don’t know anything about me, or what I’ve done.”

“We know all about you,” Malik said. “You’re a pirate.”

“You do extreme solar sail sports in the future,” Jerboa added. “What else is there to know?”

“But,” Lydia said. “I could be a criminal. I might have killed someone. I could be as bad as that astral projection guy.”

“Lydia,” Malik put one hand on her shoulder, like super gently. “We know you.”

Nobody spoke for a while. Every few minutes, Malik turned on the engine so they could get some heat, and the silence between engine starts was deeper than ordinary silence.

“I had blackouts,” Lydia said. “Like, a lot of blackouts. I would lose hours at a time, no clue where I’d been or how I’d gotten here. I would just be in the middle of talking to people, or behind the wheel of a car in the middle of nowhere, with no clue. I worked at this high-powered sales office, we obliterated our targets. And everybody drank all the time. Pitchers of beer, of martinis, of margaritas. The pitcher was like the emblem of our solidarity. You couldn’t turn the pitcher away, it would be like spitting on the team. We made so much money. And I had this girlfriend, Sara, with this amazing red hair, who I couldn’t even talk to when we were sober. We would just lie in bed naked, with a bottle of tequila propped up between us. I knew it was just a matter of time before I did something really unforgivable during one of those blackouts. Especially after Sara decided to move out.”

“So what happened?” Jerboa said.

“In the end, it wasn’t anything I did during a blackout that caused everything to implode,” Lydia said. “It was what I did to keep myself from ever having another blackout. I got to work early one day, and I just lit a bonfire in the fancy conference room. And I threw all the contents of the company’s wet bar into it.”

Once again, nobody talked for a while. Malik turned the engine on and off a couple times, which made it about seven minutes of silence. They were parked by the side of the road, and every once in a while a car simmered past.

“I think that’s what makes us such good time travelers, actually.” Jerboa’s voice cracked a little bit, and Lydia was surprised to see the outlines of tears on that small brown face, in the light of a distant highway detour sign. “We are very experienced at being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at doing whatever it takes to get ourselves to the right place, and the right time.”

Lydia put her arm around Jerboa, who was sitting in the middle of the front seat, and Jerboa leaned into Lydia’s shoulder so just a trace of moisture landed on Lydia’s neck.

“You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve had to escape from in the middle of the night,” Jerboa said. “The people who tried to fix my, my . . . irregularities. You wouldn’t believe the methods that have been tried. People can justify almost anything, if their perspective is limited enough.”

Malik wrapped his hand on Jerboa’s back, so it was like all three of them were embracing. “We’ve all had our hearts broken, I guess,” he said. “I was a teacher, in one of those Teach For America-style programs. I thought we were all in this together, that we had a shared code. I thought we were altruists. Until they threw me under a bus.”

And it was then that Malik said the thing about wanting to stand outside history and see the gears grinding from a distance, all of the cruelty and all of the edifices that had been built on human remains. The true power wouldn’t be changing history, or even seeing how it turned out, but just seeing the shape of the wheel.

They sat for a good long time in silence again. The engine ticked a little. They stayed leaning into each other, as the faceplates watched.

Lydia started to say something like, “I just want to hold on to this moment. Here, now, with the two of you. I don’t care about whatever else, I just want this to last.” But just as she started to speak, Madame Alberta tapped on the passenger-side window, right next to Lydia’s head, and gestured at her car, which was parked in front of theirs. It was time to suit up, and go get some nuclear waste.

• • • •

Lydia didn’t see Malik or Jerboa for a month or so, after Madame Alberta told her weird story about Europe getting nuked. MJL Aerospace shuttered its offices, and Lydia saw the rocket picture in a dumpster as she drove to the Lucky Doubloon. She redoubled her commitment to going to a twelve-step meeting every goddamn day. She finally called her mom back, and went to a few bluegrass concerts.

Lydia got the occasional panicked call from Normando, or even one of the other semi-regulars, wondering what happened to the club, but she just ignored it.

Until one day Lydia was driving to work, on the day shift again, and she saw Jerboa walking on the side of the road. Jerboa kicked the shoulder of the road over and over, kicking dirt and rocks, not looking ahead. Hips and knees jerking almost out of their sockets. Inaudible curses spitting at the gravel.

Lydia pulled over next to Jerboa and honked her horn a couple times, then rolled down the window. “Come on, get in.” She turned down the bluegrass on her stereo.

Jerboa gave a gesture between a wave and a “go away.”

“Listen, I screwed up,” Lydia said. “That aerospace thing was a really bad idea. It wasn’t about the money, though, you have to believe me about that. I just wanted to give us a new project, so we wouldn’t drift apart.”

“It’s not your fault.” Jerboa did not get in the truck. “I don’t blame you.”

“Well, I blame myself. I was being selfish. I just didn’t want you guys to run away. I was scared. But we need to figure out a way to turn the space travel back into time travel. We can’t do that, unless we work together.”

“It’s just not possible,” Jerboa said. “For any amount of time displacement beyond a few hours, the variables get harder and harder to calculate. The other day, I did some calculations and figured out that if you traveled a hundred years into the future, you’d wind up around one-tenth of a light year away. That’s just a back-of-the-envelope thing, based on our orbit around the sun.”

“Okay, so one problem at a time.” Lydia stopped her engine, gambling that it would restart. The bluegrass stopped mid-phrase. “We need to get some accurate measurements of exactly where stuff ends up, when we send it forwards and backwards in time. But to do that, first we need to be able to send stuff out, and get it back again.”

“There’s no way,” Jerboa said. “It’s strictly a one-way trip.”

“We’ll figure out a way,” Lydia said. “Trial and error. We just need to open a second rift close enough to the first rift to bring our stuff back. Yeah? Once we’re good enough, we send people. And eventually, we send people, along with enough equipment to build a telescope in deep space, so we can spy on Earth in the distant past or the far future.”

“There are so many steps in there, it’s ridiculous,” Jerboa said. “Every one of those steps might turn out to be just as impossible as the satellite thing turned out to be. We can’t do this with just the four of us, we don’t have enough pairs of hands. Or enough expertise.”

“That’s why we recruit,” said Lydia. “We need to find a ton more people who can help us make this happen.”

“Except,” said Jerboa, fists clenched and eyes red and pinched, “we can’t trust just any random people with this. Remember? That’s why Madame Alberta brought it to us in the first place, because the temptation to abuse this power would be too great. You could destroy a city with this machine. How on Earth do we find a few dozen people who we can trust with this?”

“The same way we found each other,” Lydia said. “The same way Madame Alberta found us. The Time Travel Club.”

Jerboa finally got into the truck and snapped the seatbelt into place. Nodding slowly, like thinking it over.

Ricky from Garbo.com showed up at a meeting of the Time Travel Club, several months later. He didn’t even realize at first that these were the same people from MJL Aerospace—maybe he’d seen the articles about the club on the various nerd blogs, or maybe he’d seen Malik’s appearance on the basic cable TV show GeekUp!. Or maybe he’d listened to one of their podcasts. They were doing lots and lots of things to expand the membership of the club, without giving the slightest hint about what went on in Madame Alberta’s laundry room.

Garbo.com had gone under by now, and Ricky was in grad school. He’d shaved off the big sideburns and wore square Elvis Costello glasses now.

“So I heard this is like a LARP, sort of,” Ricky said to Lydia as they were getting a cookie from the cookie table before the meeting started—they’d had to move the meetings from the Unitarian basement to a middle school basketball court, now that they had a few dozen members. Scores of folding chairs, in rows, facing a podium. And they had a cookie table. “You make up your time travel stories, and everybody pretends they’re true. Right?”

“Sort of,” Lydia said. “You’ll see. Once the meeting starts, you cannot say anything about these stories not being true. Okay? It’s the only real rule.”

“Sure thing,” Ricky said. “I can do that. I worked for a dotcom startup, remember? I’m good at make-believe.”

And Ricky turned out to be one of the more promising new recruits, weirdly enough. He spent a lot of time going to the eighteenth century and teaching Capability Brown about feng shui. Which everybody agreed was probably a good thing for the Enlightenment.

Just a few months after that, Lydia, Malik, and Jerboa found themselves already debating whether to show Ricky the laundry room. Lydia was snapping her third-hand spacesuit into place in Madame Alberta’s sitting room, with its caved-in sofa and big-screen TV askew. Lydia was happy to obsess over something else, to get her mind off the crazy thing she was about to do.

“I think he’s ready,” Lydia said of Ricky. “He’s committed to the club.”

“I would certainly like to see his face when he finds out how we were really going to launch that satellite into orbit,” said Malik, grinning.

“It’s too soon,” Jerboa said. “I think we ought to wait six months, as a rule, before bringing anyone here. Just to make sure someone is really in tune with the group, and isn’t going to go trying to tell the wrong people about this. This technology has an immense potential to distort your sense of ethics and your values.”

Lydia tried to nod, but it was hard now that the bulky collar was in place. This spacesuit was a half a size too big, with boots that Lydia’s feet slid around in. The crotch of the orange suit was almost M.C. Hammer wide on her, even with the adult diaper they’d insisted she should wear just in case. The puffy white gloves swallowed her fingers. And then Malik and Jerboa lowered the helmet into place, and Lydia’s entire world was compressed to a gray tinted rectangle. Goodbye, peripheral vision.

She wondered what sort of tattoo she would get to commemorate this trip.

“Ten minutes,” Madame Alberta called from the laundry room. And indeed, it was ten to midnight.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jerboa said. “It’s not too late to call it off.”

“I’m the only one this suit sort of fits,” Lydia said. “And I’m the most expendable. And yes. I do want to be the first person to travel through time.”

After putting so many weird objects into that cube, thousands of them before they’d managed to get a single one back, Lydia felt strange about clambering inside the cube herself. She had to hunch over a bit. Malik waved and Jerboa gave a tiny thumbs up. Betty the Cyborg from the Dawn of Time checked the instruments one last time. Steampunk Fred gave a thumbs up on the calculations. And Madame Alberta reached for the clunky lever. Even through her helmet, Lydia heard a greedy soda-belch sound.

A thousand years later, Lydia lost her hold on anything. She couldn’t get her footing. There was no footing to get. She felt ill immediately. She’d expected the microgravity, but it still made her feel revolting. She felt drunk, actually. Like she didn’t know which way was up. She spun head over ass. If she drifted too far, they would never pull her back. But the tiny maneuvering thrusters on her suit were useless, because she had no reference point. She couldn’t see a damn thing through this foggy helmet, just blackness. She couldn’t find the sun, or any stars, for a moment. Then she made out stars. And more stars.

She spun. And somersaulted. No control at all. Until she tried the maneuvering thrusters, the way Jerboa had explained. She tried to turn a full 360, so she could try and locate the sun. She had to remember to breathe normally. Every part of her wanted to hyperventilate.

When she’d turned halfway around on her axis, she didn’t see the sun. But she saw something else. At first, she couldn’t even make sense of it. There were lights blaring at her. And things moving. And shapes. She took a few photos with the camera Malik had given her. The whole mass was almost spherical, maybe egg-shaped. But there were jagged edges. As Lydia stared, she made out more details. Like, one of the shapes on the outer edge was the hood of a 1958 Buick, license plate and all. There were pieces of a small passenger airplane bolted on as well, along with a canopy made of some kind of shiny blue material that Lydia had never seen before. It was just a huge collection of junk welded together, protection against cosmic rays and maybe also decoration.

Some of the moving shapes were people. They were jumping up and down. And waving at Lydia. They were behind a big observation window at the center of the egg, a slice of see-through material. They gestured at something below the window. Lydia couldn’t make it out at first. Then she squinted and saw that it was a big glowy sign with blocky letters made of massive pixels.

At first, Lydia though the sign read, “WELCOME TIME TRAVEL CLUB.” Like they knew the Time Travel Club was coming, and they wanted to prepare a reception committee.

Then she squinted again, just as another rift started opening up to pull her back, a purple blaze all around her, and she realized she had missed a word. The sign actually read, “WELCOME TO TIME TRAVEL CLUB.” They were all members of the Club, too, and they were having another meeting. And they were inviting her to share her story, any way she could.

—Thanks to Dr. Dave Goldberg for trouble-shooting the physics. Thanks also to Rochelle Underwood, Bruce White, Karen Burnham, and David Calkins for advice on aerospace issues. And thanks to Naamen Tilahun and Liz Henry for feedback!

Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Locus and Crawford Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in Wired, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tin House, ZYZZYVA, The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes, and elsewhere, and her story “Six Months Three Days” won a Hugo Award. She runs the long-running Writers With Drinks reading series in San Francisco and used to spout off on io9.com. She won the Emperor Norton Award for “extraordinary invention and creativity unhindered by the constraints of paltry reason.”