Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Double Occupancy

1.

“This is a disaster!”

“What?”

“This is an absolute disaster!”

“Did you say something?”

Jessica Martin closed her laptop and put her head in her hands. Her old friend Todd, who was in her big bean chair in the corner, watching a movie on his phone, took out his earbuds.

“What is it, dude? It’s not working?”

“Oh, it’s working,” she said. She stared angrily at her invention, which stood in the middle of her room, the size and shape of a refrigerator. It was, in fact, her family’s old refrigerator, which she had stripped down and rebuilt.

“It is working, Todd. It’s working perfectly. That is the problem.”

“Oh,” said Todd, and then, “totally,” and then, “what?”

Jessica sighed. “Don’t worry about it.”

Todd was super nice, and had been her neighbor and her best friend for most of her life, but he didn’t really have the kind of mind that could keep pace with Jessica’s. He was in the regular-science track, and she was in the accelerated-science track—though as of sophomore year she’d actually gone past the accelerated track and was now on a special track that was just her, and which she had actually designed for herself.

But this invention wasn’t even for school. This was her entry in the National Competitive Exhibition in the Physical Sciences, and it was the ticket to the rest of her life, if she could just get the stupid thing right.

“Okay, so hit me,” said Todd, who had heaved himself up from the chair and was slowly circling her invention. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem is, there is a significant issue which I have not solved, and which should mean, theoretically at least, that the invention does not work.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, but . . . well, here.” Jessica picked up a quarter from a short stack on her nightstand. “Watch.”

She opened what used to be the refrigerator door, when the invention was still a refrigerator, and dropped a quarter in the vegetable drawer. Then she closed the door and rapidly typed a series of commands into a touchscreen interface on the front. Then she opened the door again and—

“Whoa!” shouted Todd. “It’s gone!”

“Well,” said Jessica. “Not exactly.”

“This is amazing. Could I put Mr. Langer in there? Then we won’t have the stupid vocabulary test on Friday.”

“No,” Jessica said distractedly. A tiny alarm sounded from the interface; twenty seconds had passed. She opened the door again and the quarter was back.

“What?!” cried Todd, throwing up his hands as if to celebrate a touchdown. “No way. How did you do that? Is that the same quarter?”

“It is.” Jessica couldn’t help it: she smiled. Todd was no genius, but his enthusiasm was very sweet. They’d been friends since they were little, although these days they hung out in very different social circles. He was friends with the skate punks, and a few of the football players, and hung out at the Westdale Mall. She was friends with basically no one and mostly hung out here, by herself, in her house.

“I sent the quarter twenty seconds into the future. So when I opened the door, there it was. Waiting for us.”

“Dude,” he said. “Dude.” Todd gaped at her. “You built a time machine? For a science contest?”

“I did. Yes.”

“Okay, well I think you win, then. Right? When there’s a time machine, the time machine wins.”

Jessica wished she could be so confident. It wasn’t just that she wanted to win the contest: she had to. Her whole future depended on it. The top prize was a first-year scholarship to the college of one’s choice. Jessica would use that money to attend MIT, which was right here in Cambridge, and which she had been driving past, wide-eyed with wonder, since she was a tiny kid. She would graduate with honors in physics, and then get her doctorate, and eventually become a world-renowned professor and inventor. That was her plan. It had been her plan for a long time.

“A time machine. I can’t believe it.” Todd was peering at the touch-screen interface. “How could you possibly be worried?”

“Because,” she said, “the judges are going to ask how I solved the double-occupancy problem, and I won’t be able to explain.”

“How you solved the what-now?”

As she explained, Jessica used a tiny screwdriver to open the rear panel of the refrigerator and peer searchingly at the motherboard.

“The causal problems associated with forward-moving time travel have been essentially resolved. But when an object moves backward in time, it necessarily encounters the prior existing version of itself, which would mean it occupies the same physical space as itself. Hence the double-occupancy problem.”

“Got it.”

“Really?”

“No. Not at all.”

Jessica, meanwhile, had noticed an empty space in the motherboard, a narrow gap between two circuits like a missing tooth. She furrowed her brow, irritated: this was not the sort of careless error she liked to see in her work. She reached out and felt the tiny space, delicately brushing the motherboard with the very tips of her two fingers.

“Hey, Jess?” Todd said, and she drew her hand back, as if caught. “If you really decide to bail on this thing, you could always come with me to Rodney’s uncle’s lake house.”

“What?” said Jessica, but just barely. She wasn’t listening. She was still staring at the motherboard.

“Oh, no, just like, I thought it might be cool for us to, you know . . .”

“Todd! Wait!”

“What?”

“I’ve got it,” she said, and laughed. “I’ve totally got it.”

“You solved the double—the double—thing? The double-double problem?”

“The double occupancy problem, Todd. And no, I didn’t solve it. But I know how I can.”

“How?”

She turned to Todd and squeezed his arms, and he grinned. “Because I know that I will solve it! The machine works. It’s working. Hence I will figure out how to make it work, at some point in the future. All I need to do now is go ask for help from the person who has already figured it out. You see?”

“No I do not.”

But Jessica had rushed back over to the machine. She tapped furiously on the interface, and then stood back, beaming.

“Jessica?” said Todd. He sounded a little worried. “What did you do?”

What she had done was adjust the settings. Instead of sending something twenty seconds into the future, she would be sending it twenty years.

And instead of a quarter, she would be sending herself.

Jessica opened the fridge and got inside.

2.

The Mechanics of the Natural World was apparently an extremely popular course.

The only empty seat Jessica could find was way in the back, and to get to it she had to squeeze down a row, muttering “excuse me” and stepping over knees and ankles. She tried her best to look mature, trying to pretend she was of college age—although most of these kids were utterly absorbed in their laptops or handhelds, except for a few who were encased in glossy black helmets, with their hands outstretched, typing sightlessly in the empty air.

Otherwise, the future looked pretty much the same. The lecture hall looked like a lecture hall. Starbucks cups were everywhere.

A moment after Jessica sat down, a striking woman with long hair swooped into the room, dropped her leather satchel next to the podium, and clapped her hands sharply for attention.

“All right, people,” said Dr. Jessica Steinmetz. “We are continuing with Heisenbergian uncertainty. I will assume you did the reading, and so I, like an object in motion, will remain in motion.”

The professor chuckled, though none of her students did. Jessica’s heart swelled, and not just because she frikkin’ loved Heisenbergian uncertainty. There she was! Her future self! In the future, it appeared, Jessica had grown out her hair and ditched her glasses for contacts. She wore a long red cape and a high-waisted skirt, which Jessica assumed to be the height of 2042 fashion. Plus at some point she had apparently married someone named Steinmetz, who (Jessica assumed) was another brilliant professor and/or a male model.

“Oh my God,” said Jessica. “I’m amazing.”

“Well, that was random,” said a handsome college dude in horn-rim glasses next to her, and Jessica flushed. But it was true. She was amazing.

When class was over, Jessica rushed down the tiered steps of the lecture hall. She was wild with excitement, not only because her plan had worked, and now she would learn the solution to the double-occupancy problem, but because Professor Steinmetz was confirmation that her life was on the right track. In twenty years’ time, she was going to have gone to MIT, or some prestigious university. She’d have gotten her doctorate, and now a full professorship. Everything was going according to plan.

“Excuse me?” she said, and Dr. Steinmetz looked up from packing her satchel. “Hi. Sorry.”

“Yes?” The professor’s voice was tight with annoyance and Jessica, jangling with nerves, stepped backward and almost fell over a chair. She took a deep breath. Get it together, sister, she commanded herself. Take it easy. It’s just you.

“Professor, I am wrangling with a particularly vexing physics problem, and I’m hoping you can help me.” Jessica smiled impishly. “Actually—I know that you can help me.”

Dr. Steinmetz looked her up and down. “You don’t look familiar. Are you enrolled in this class?”

“No. Not exactly.”

“Sorry, doc? Grab you a half sec?” This interruption came from a short, grimy-faced custodian in overalls, who had pushed a large cart, overladen with tools, into the lecture hall. “I got a message that a monitor in here is busted, needs to get hauled.”

“Not in here, no,” said Dr. Steinmetz with irritation. “In my office.”

“Shoot. You sure?”

“Am I sure? Of the repair that I requested? Yes, thank you, I’m sure.”

The custodian took off the ball cap to scratch their head, and Jessica screamed.

“Whoa. You okay there, kid?” the custodian said.

Under the cap, the glasses, the shapeless coveralls, the custodian’s face was familiar. It was very familiar.

Oh, no, thought Jessica. She felt light-headed. She pointed.

“You . . . you’re . . . are you . . .”

“Young lady?” said Dr. Steinmetz, meanwhile. “Are you all right?”

No. She was not all right. Because she looked at the custodian’s name tag, and the name tag said JESSICA MARTIN.

3.

“One more time,” said the custodian. “Run it down for me one more time.”

“It’s really not that complicated,” said Jessica, trying to keep impatience out of her voice. Not to mention despair. “I am you. And you are me.”

“Huh,” said the custodian, squinching up her face. “But you’re not me. I’m me. I’m standing here.”

Where they were standing was by the custodian’s electric pickup truck, just outside the magisterial red-brick Physical Sciences Building. It was a beautiful day, and kids were walking every which way across the quad, coming to and from their classes.

“Right,” said Jessica. “But you were me. At one time. And I will be you.”

“It all seems kind of crazy.”

This was exasperating. It was like talking to Todd! She stared at the custodian, with her misshapen dirty coveralls and her mass of frizzed-up hair. The name tag said JESSICA MARTIN, but she’d already explained that everybody called her JJ, which in Jessica’s opinion was a dumb nickname. So far, actually, everything about the future Jessica, Jessica the custodian, was appalling. Not that there was anything wrong with being a custodian, the world needed custodians, but it was definitely a long way from being a full professor at MIT.

“So, what, you came to the future just to meet me?” JJ extended her arms to either side, revealing patches of sweat in both of her armpits. “Ta-da. Here I am.”

“No, see, I—I came because I need something.”

“What’s that?”

Jessica felt ridiculous even saying it. She was going to present the thorny complexity of the double-occupancy problem to this person? JJ, meanwhile, pulled out a pack of cigarettes from one of the pockets of her coveralls. Jessica gaped at her.

“You smoke? People still smoke?”

“Not that many people. Just the real idiots, I guess.” She tapped out a cigarette and lit it up, while Jessica’s heart sank yet further.

But she had come this far—it had to be worth a shot, right? She explained the double-occupancy problem as succinctly as she could: about the persistence of objects through time, the problematic intersection of spatiotemporal worldlines, and the ontological dilemma created by the simultaneous existence of two non-synchronous versions of the same object in the same space.

“Ontological dilemma,” echoed JJ softly. “I hear ya.”

Her face was etched with intense concentration, and for one bright and hopeful moment Jessica’s heart surged. She’s got it! This lady was her, after all, this was Jessica, and beneath that great frizz of hair there surely remained a brilliant scientific mind. She was about to open her mouth and solve the whole thing.

But no. She had seen a bird. She pointed over Jessica’s shoulder.

“Check that out,” she said. “Check it out!” Jessica turned and looked, but it was just a small yellow bird, flickering in the bent arm of a towering oak.

“What?”

“That right there? That’s a Buff-bellied hummingbird. Used to basically hang out in the Gulf of Mexico. With temperatures changing lately, now we get ‘em all the way up to the Canadian border. Climate’s been so screwy lately. Which is bad, obviously, but . . . God, look at ‘er! Gorgeous.”

“Yeah, I see,” said Jessica curtly. “It’s a nice bird. What do you think about the double-occupancy problem?”

“Oh. Right.” JJ dropped the butt of her cigarette and squashed it under her boot. “No idea. To be honest, I started tuning out all that sciencey stuff a long time ago.”

Jessica’s heart sank. That sciencey stuff?

“Hey, though, cool to meet you.” JJ gave her past self a jokey little salute. “Hope everything works out good for me.”

Then she hopped in her truck and pressed a couple buttons on the dash and zoomed away. Jessica watched her go, chuckling bitterly. This crude, unambitious woman with her coveralls and her cigarettes? She hopes everything works out good for me, huh?

Well obviously, it doesn’t!

• • • •

Jessica walked back across Cambridge and found that her modified refrigerator/time machine was right where she’d left it, in the rear storage room of the frozen-yogurt store that had, at some point in the last twenty years, been built where her house used to be. She snuck in the back of the yogurt store and stood there, surrounded by cardboard boxes of sprinkles and freeze-dried fruit, staring at her invention.

It was time to go home.

She opened the door, and then stood for a while, staring inside of it.

This mission had been a total failure. She had found future-Jessica, but future-Jessica had been no help at all. Future Jessica was a disaster. She was more interested in hauling garbage and looking at birds, than in the marvels of the physical world.

But Jessica didn’t get in the time machine. She stood there with the door of it hanging open, practically hearing her mother’s voice in her head, telling her to decide what she wanted and close the fridge already.

She stepped inside.

Then she got out again.

“No,” she told herself. “No way.”

She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t just give up! If she got in that fridge now, and went back to the past, then how would she solve for the double-occupancy problem? Which she had to do; she literally had to; because otherwise how had she gotten here in the first place? How was the machine even working?

It was a hell of an ontological dilemma to be wrestling with, in the cold smelly closet of a frozen yogurt store. But the real problem, Jessica knew, was that she wanted to stay. She needed to. She was going to figure this out and win that contest. She wasn’t going to let anyone talk her out of her dreams. Least of all her stupid future self.

Jessica slammed closed the door of the fridge, walked out into the alley and came around to the front of the yogurt store.

“Excuse me?” There was a bored kid at the counter, watching a movie on his phone. She asked him where she could find a bookstore, and he blinked at her.

“What’s a bookstore?”

4.

JJ Martin wrapped up her last job of the day, laboriously resetting the busted electric radiator in the Library Annex, and drove back to the on-campus apartment provided to her as part of her salary. She walked up the three flights, turned down the hallway, and found her younger self waiting for her, arms crossed, legs planted on either side of a tall stack of books.

“Whoa,” said JJ. “How’d you figure out where I live?”

“I’m a genius,” Jessica pointed at JJ. “So are you. Speaking of which, I brought you some reading.”

What she had brought were Fermi’s writings on thermodynamics; an advanced textbook on Classical Mechanics; the complete Oxford lectures of Richard Feynman; HC Verma’s renowned primer on quantum mechanics; and one last book that Jessica had included pure for sentimental value: Edwin Abbott’s weird and marvelous Flatland, the very book that had inspired her interest in physics in the first place.

“What am I supposed to do with all this?” said JJ, fishing in her pockets for her keys.

“Read them,” said Jessica. “Become inspired. Reignite your lifelong passion for the physical sciences.”

“Oh, okay,” said JJ, stepping carefully around the stack as she opened her door. “Cool.”

But she didn’t so much as look at the books. She ambled through her small, cluttered living room into the even smaller and more cluttered kitchen, with Jessica marching after her, the books cradled in her arms in a wobbling pile. She was deeply offended by the utter chaos of the apartment: the empty and half-empty beer bottles, the stubbed-out cigarettes, the anime posters hanging limply on the walls. Jessica caught up with JJ in the kitchen and slammed the books down on the table.

“Careful,” said JJ. “That table’s pretty old.”

Jessica shook her head. “How can you live like this?”

“Like what?” JJ talked over her shoulder while she rooted around in her fridge. “I got tons of friends and a solid job.” She turned around, holding a beer in a green bottle. “I basically work for myself, and they give me this apartment rent free. I promise you, in time you’ll understand the value of such things.” She cracked open the beer on a corner of the counter and took a long swig. “Oh—and—here—look out the window.”

Jessica, cringing, peeled up one corner of the grimy window shade. “What? What am I looking at?”

“Nothing right now. But during the daylight hours? I get some of the best bird traffic in the city.” She took another very long swig of her beer, and set the empty down with a clank. “Don’t worry about me, dude. I live great.”

“But—but—” Jessica let the disgusting shade drop and planted her hands on her hips. “What about the unseen intricacies of the physical world? The mystery of subatomic particles, the great dance of the planets in their orbits?”

“Honestly?” JJ was back in the fridge, pulling out another beer. “All that stuff’s going on whether we’re studying it or not. I’d rather be blissfully ignorant, and happy. Not like I used to be.”

Jessica glared. “But I’m like you used to be.”

“Yeah,” said JJ. She smiled a very small smile. “No kidding.”

Jessica sputtered. She jabbed a finger at JJ. “You know what you’re doing? You’re turning your back on your destiny.”

“Hm. Well, I guess I don’t see it that way.” JJ angled the second beer up till it was nearly vertical and drained it in one long swallow. “Looks like you’re going to have to figure out this little double-fault problem on your own.”

“Double occupancy.”

“Oh, right. Shoot. See? I’m useless.”

“No,” Jessica protested. “Uh-uh. You’re only useless because you are choosing to be useless. You are squandering my promise. I refuse to spend the rest of my life—our life—drinking beer and fixing toilets.”

“I rarely fix toilets. I do a toilet maybe once a year, tops.”

“It’s just . . . I mean . . .” Jessica realized, to her absolute horror, that she was crying. Why was she crying? “It’s just that I love this stuff so much. This is the world that I love, and I . . .” She grabbed Flatland and held it to her chest. “I want to live in it forever.”

There was a pile of dirty napkins bunched up in the center of the table; JJ found the least dirty and handed it gingerly to Jessica.

“Take it easy, kiddo,” said JJ. “Hey, do you like graham crackers?”

“Like them?” Jessica laughed through her tears. “I love graham crackers.”

This, then, was at least one thing that Jessica and herself still had in common. After they went through a sleeve of graham crackers apiece, JJ put in a frozen pizza for dinner, and they settled on the old, gross futon to watch TV. In the future, as it turned out, there was still Netflix, and it had all the episodes of Friends.

It was only after Jessica had fallen fast asleep that JJ tiptoed back into the kitchen, just to grab one more beer, and instead found herself standing in the center of the room, tracing her finger across the familiar cover of Flatland.

After another moment, she picked it up, sighing, and began to thumb through it. The table of contents . . . the diagrams . . . the strange cartoons of men, bent into bulging and unfamiliar shapes. The long, mysterious equations, spiky with mathematical symbols and Greek letters.

“Oh, damn it,” said JJ, and then, without really thinking about it, she had pushed the empty frozen-pizza box off the chair.

She sat down and started to read.

5.

When Jessica woke up the next morning, her future self was nowhere to be found.

The TV was still on, Netflix’s algorithm aggressively and endlessly suggesting what to watch next. Through a crack in the shade she could see the courtyard, and paused for a wide-eyed moment to watch a bright blue bird careen in for a perfect landing.

“JJ?” she called, and then, louder. “JJ?”

She went into the kitchen, and saw that the stack of books was gone.

She grinned. She called again: “JJ?”

“Stop yelling!” JJ’s voice came from outside the apartment. “I’m trying to think.”

JJ was out in the hallway. She had colonized the long stretch of wall between her apartment door and the next one, and covered it with equations written in marker. As Jessica watched, her heart soaring and singing, JJ scribbled more notations, paused, and then underlined three times the word “electromagnetic pulse” before stepping back and scratching her ear furiously—a gesture Jessica herself did when she was lost in thought, and which she mimicked now, unconsciously, her eyes flicking from place to place on the wall.

“Wait,” said JJ to herself. “That’s wrong. Shit.”

“It’s the Delta,” said Jessica from the threshold. “The Delta variant needs to be adjusted to allow for the electromagnetic force. Here—can I—”

“Yes! Please, yes!” said JJ, and handed her the marker. “Of course. Go. Do it.”

They worked side by side in the cramped hallway for an hour, and then for another hour. One Jessica would write a word or two, or a set of numbers, and then when frustrated or unsure would hand the marker to the other Jessica. Every once in a while they would both step back, hands on hips or scratching at ears, and then one or the other or both at once would dart forward and start writing again. Equations and lines of text blossomed like flowers all over the board, curling and connection and interlacing, running eventually past the next apartment door and all the way to the stairwell.

By the end of an hour, Jessica and JJ had sketched out the overlapping set of problems that represented the issues of double occupancy in mathematical form; by the end of two hours they were closing in on the solutions. By mid-day they were swapping hypotheses around how to adapt the refrigerator to allow for what JJ called “achronological elision,” a mechanism by which the particles comprising the forward-moving traveler would make a minute “shift” in space-time, briefly entering what Jessica called “a co-equal dimension,” just long enough to avoid collision with the stable extant object.

“That’s a boss idea,” said JJ and Jessica said, “I know,” and JJ gave her a fist bump, and they returned to their furious scribbling . . . until, at precisely 2:45, an alarm went off on JJ’s phone, and she said, “Okay. Break time.”

“What?” said Jessica. “Wait. No! We’re so close.”

“Yeah, no, I know, but I have a date at three every day.”

“A date? What kind of date?”

JJ just waggled her eyebrows, and put down her marker. She dragged Jessica with her, down the stairs and out of the apartment and into the courtyard, where they stood together looking up at the sky.

“What are we—”

“Wait.”

“JJ.”

“Wait.”

And there it was. A bird, and not even a bird, and not just one bird, either. A flock of the most extraordinary birds that Jessica had ever seen.

“Whoa!” she said softly.

“I know,” said JJ.

“What . . . what are those?”

“Pterododococks. Some scientist in New Jersey was trying to make some kind of point about reversing extinction cycles. These beauties are part dodo, part peacock, and part pterodactyl. There was bit of a backlash, though, to the whole mad-scientist thing, so only a handful of these babies got hatched before the guy’s funding got revoked. He might have gone to jail, actually.”

Jessica was only half listening. She was staring in awe at the big, strange birds as they beat their massive leathery wings and cawed with their long, razored beaks and trailed their elaborate multicolored plumage. And maybe Jessica wouldn’t have expressed it quite this way, but it felt good to just stand there doing nothing—just looking, just feeling.

They stood together for a few moments, eyes up toward the sky, until the last of the pterododococks was gone and JJ said now they could get back to work.

But Jessica hesitated. “Hey, JJ?” she said. “Can I ask you something, please?”

JJ frowned. “Yeah?”

“I really just want to know what happened. And I know, I get it, there’s nothing wrong with your life. I hear you. But the thing is, I’m me. I know exactly where I want my life to go. And it’s not . . .” She gestured around. “No offense, Okay? But it’s not here. So I guess I just really want to know what it was that took things off the rails.”

JJ smiled, and sighed, and opened her mouth to answer, but then she closed it again, and shook her head, and merely said: “Life, you know?” She turned and headed back inside, and Jessica followed. “Life happened.”

• • • •

They worked as a team, all the rest of that day and into the night. But it was JJ, ultimately, who found the solution to the double-occupancy problem, although that may just have been because Jessica, despite her best efforts, had begun to drift off to sleep.

“Hey,” said JJ, and Jessica jerked her eyes open. She was lying curled up on the thin carpet of the apartment-building hallway. She said “wha—?” blinking and yawning into her fist.

“Come,” said JJ. “Come and look.”

What she had to show Jessica was way on the other end of the hall, by the stairwell. It was a schematic, a drawing of a simple computer chip they would need to somehow manufacture and fuse into the existing circuitry of Jessica’s invention.

Jessica was wide awake now. She reviewed the drawing quickly, and then again, and then she threw her arms around JJ, nearly overcome.

“You did it,” she cried.

“No,” said JJ. “We did.”

She tossed the marker in the air with a flourish and held up one hand, palm out, and Jessica slapped it. They turned together to what was written on the wall, and both wore the identical expression: the sly smile, the self-satisfied flush of having done something and done it right.

“All right,” said JJ, pointing to the diagram. “Now we just have to figure out how to manufacture this thing.”

“Don’t you still have 3-D printers, in the future?” Jessica asked.

“Sure, but I don’t have one.”

“But you’re the custodian. You’ve got the keys to the Physics Building, right? So—”

“Whoa,” said JJ. “Stop.”

“No. Why? It’s perfect.”

“Not if you’re suggesting breaking into a professor’s office to make unauthorized use of a fifty-thousand-dollar printer. Oh no. No, we are not doing that.”

She turned away. But Jessica grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her back.

“We can’t quit now,” she said. “We’ve come this far. Don’t you want to see if this thing works?”

“I don’t care if it works.”

“You can’t lie,” said Jessica. She looked into JJ’s eyes. Into her own eyes. “Not to me.”

JJ sighed. She fished in her pocket for her keys.

“Man,” she muttered. “I am such a pain in the ass.”

6.

They waited until it was near midnight, dressed themselves all in black, and crept silently across the quad to the Physics Building. Jessica stayed on the driveway, looking out across the wide yard to make sure the coast was clear, while JJ lifted her key fob to the door so it beeped open. Together they slipped inside.

JJ hooked up her laptop to the printer and opened the software to which she had transferred the schematic.

“God,” murmured Jessica, looking over the shoulder of her older self, shaking her head.

“What?” JJ was typing, preparing the thing to print.

“It’s just—it’s really so simple. It’s beautiful.”

“Thanks.”

But JJ was very focused; she was all business. She pointed to the diagram on the screen, even as she pressed PRINT and the thing itself began to emerge from the printer. “You see the connectors here. You’re going to have to make space on the motherboard inside your machine.”

Our machine. And yeah, I know. It’s no problem. And . . .” She trailed off, touching her hand to her temple. It was the damnedest thing; the strangest feeling. She shivered. “. . . actually, I—” She laughed. “I think it’s already there. I think it may already be there.”

“What?” said JJ, turning around.

“Yeah, I know—it’s—”

Suddenly the lights all went on at once.

“What the hell are you people doing here?”

Dr. Steinmetz stood glaring at the threshold of her office, holding hands with a young man that Jessica recognized as the handsome dude with the horn-rim glasses who had been sitting next to her in the lecture hall.

“What are you doing here?” said Jessica. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“That’s—” Dr. Steinmetz flushed brightly, and dropped the young man’s hand, “That is obviously none of your business. This is my lab and you have no call to be here, and you certainly have no call to be using my printer! Who even are you?” She wheeled on JJ, who stood frozen, looking extremely alarmed. “Aren’t you the custodian? This is an outrageous intrusion. The university will hear about this.”

Dr. Steinmetz stormed out, and Jessica could hear the clack of her heels, and the young man saying “awwww . . .” until the big doors of the Physics Buildings slammed shut.

“Oh God,” said JJ, dropping her head into her hands. “Oh no.”

“Hey,” said Jessica. “Who cares? We did it.” The chip they had designed had finished emerging from the 3-D printer. Jessica grabbed it and held it aloft, beaming. “We have it.”

“What do you mean, who cares? I care!” said JJ. She stood and stared at Jessica, her eyes glinting with anger. “I’m going to get fired. I’ll lose my housing. I’ll lose everything.”

“But you don’t have anything. I mean—wait—you know what I mean!” She winced but pressed on, putting the chip down in front of JJ. “You just solved the double-occupancy problem. That is a world-historical contribution to the physical sciences. Forget this job. You can have her job. You might win the Nobel Prize!”

But JJ, shaking her head furiously, stormed past Jessica and headed out the big main doors. Outside, the sun was coming up. Pinks and yellows stretched out across the quad.

“Hey!” said Jessica, emerging a moment later. “Hey! Wait!”

“Haven’t you been listening?” said JJ, jamming an angry finger into her chest. “All that shit—being a professor, winning the Nobel. Those are your dreams, not mine.”

“But they are your dreams. You’re me!”

“I am not you.” JJ threw her hands up in the air. “I was you! I was a prissy, self-involved, overworked, uptight little jerk. But I’m not anymore. Has it seriously not occurred to you that people want different things at different times in their lives?”

“You know what?” Jessica planted her hands on her hips. “That’s just an excuse.”

“An excuse for what, exactly?”

“For giving up! For wasting your life! For wasting my life. For turning into a pathetic loser!”

She stood there, breathing hard, waiting for her future self to protest, to continue the fight, to tell her again that she was an uptight little jerk.

But JJ didn’t say anything else. She fished the chip from her pocket and handed it over. She said, “Here, kid. You forgot this.”

Then she turned slowly and began to walk back toward her apartment.

7.

The back door of the yogurt shop was still propped open, and Jessica’s time machine was right where she’d left it, standing in the dark, surrounded by boxes of toppings.

She fished the chip out of her pocket and held it in her fist while, with her other hand, she opened the side panel of her machine and inspected the motherboard.

She blinked. She looked again. There was no gap in the motherboard.

She opened her fist. A moment ago it had held the tiny chip, and now the chip was gone.

The chip was already installed. It had been there all along.

It had always already been there. She had done it: she had found her future self and convinced her to help. Her crazy idea had worked. Everything had gone according to plan, and she should feel elated.

But she felt nothing. Nothing but a strange hollow kind of sadness.

There was a noise from the front of the yogurt shop—the click of a lock and then the jangle of the door chiming as it opened. The first of the yogurt-store workers, arriving for the day.

It was time to go.

• • • •

Twenty years earlier, Jessica emerged from the refrigerator into her room, and everything was the same. Here was her half-finished glass of water, right where she had left it; here was the indentation on her bean bag chair where Todd had been sitting. Slowly, she looked around her familiar room—the shelves lined with books about physics, and books about math, and books about both physics and math. Her eyes fell on her old favorite, Edwin Abbot’s Flatland; she ran her finger down the spine and then she turned the book over and let it close.

“Hey sweetie?” It was her dad, calling from down the stairs. “You ready for some dinner?”

Dinner time? Jessica looked at her phone and saw that in her whole adventure in the future, hardly any time had passed in the present. This fact in and of itself was fairly astonishing, and would require further study. Jessica sighed.

“Sweetie?” called her dad again.

“Yeah. I need a sec. Just, uh—” She looked at her invention. “Just one sec.”

8.

They waited until it was near midnight, dressed themselves all in black, and crept silently across the quad to the Physics Building. Jessica stayed on the driveway, looking out across the wide yard to make sure the coast was clear, while JJ lifted her key fob to the door and beeped it open. Together they slipped inside.

But when, a few minutes later, JJ had called up the schematic on her laptop and plugged it in to the professor’s printer and the prototype chip emerged, Jessica found something else waiting by the printer: a single piece of paper, with one word scrawled on it.

Jessica stared at it. She picked it up.

“Hey. Hey, JJ?”

“What?

The paper said RUN.

“Whoa,” said JJ. “Where did that come from?”

Jessica didn’t know, except that, suddenly, she did. “We gotta go,” she said. “We gotta go now.”

So they weren’t in Dr. Steinmetz’s office a few moments later, when the professor and her student came in, giggling and holding hands; they were standing just outside the grand doors of the Physics Building, having just watched them rush past.

“Whoa,” said JJ, looking at Jessica curiously. “Close call.”

“Yeah,” Jessica agreed.

Outside, the sun was coming up. Pinks and yellows stretched out across the quad. JJ handed Jessica the chip. Jessica took it, and folded it closed in her palm.

“Listen,” said JJ. Her voice was soft; tender, almost. “There’s something I want to tell you.”

Maybe she was going to say, “I’m glad you came.” Or “This meant a lot to me.” It’s even possible she was going to say she had decided to quit being a custodian, and she was going to continue the groundbreaking research they had begun together.

But Jessica would never know, because before JJ could finish her thought, she grabbed her arm and said, “Holy shit! Look!”

It was a single pterododocock, winging past, fluttering its great polychromatic tail, so close they could almost touch it. They stood together, side by side, holding hands, feeling the brush of air as it whooshed away.

9.

Jessica Martin, in the end, did not win the top prize at the National Competitive Exhibition in the Physical Sciences. She didn’t even win second prize, or third. This was a hugely surprising result, to those who knew Jessica and how hard she worked, but it was less surprising when you factor in that she didn’t actually show up.

Because—after dinner on the night she returned home from the future—Jessica opened up the side of her invention and removed the crucial chip that she had gone into the future to find, and unceremoniously flushed it down the toilet. While it circled down and down and out of sight, she smiled, remembering JJ’s firm insistence that only very rarely did she fix a toilet.

Later Jessica would ask her dad to call a junk hauler or whoever to help get rid of the old refrigerator. No need to have a big piece of useless trash taking up space in her room. But for right now, she had a call to make.

“Whoa! Jester!” said Todd. “What’s up?”

“I think you mentioned a—some kind of party? This weekend? Is that still happening?”

“You mean the party at Rodney’s uncle’s lake house? Heck yeah it’s happening.”

On Saturday, Todd came over around 8:30, and they got dinner first and then they went to the party together.

 

Ben H. Winters

Ben Winters. Photo credit Nicola Goode. A middle-aged white man with glasses, dark brown hair, and a kind of classically nerdy look about him, in a blue-and-green patterned dress shirt, smiling and gazing awkwardly toward the camera.

Ben H. Winters’ most recent novel is The Quiet Boy (Mulholland/Little, Brown). He is the author of many previous works of fiction, including Golden State, the New York Times bestselling Underground Airlines, The Last Policeman and its two sequels, the horror novel Bedbugs, and several works for young readers. His first novel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, was also a New York Times bestseller. Ben has won the Edgar Award for mystery writing, the Philip K. Dick award in science fiction, the Sidewise Award for alternate history, and France’s Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire. He writes frequently for New York Times Book Review. In TV, he was a producer on the FX show Legion and the upcoming Apple+ show Manhunt, and he is presently working as creator and executive producer of The Never Game, upcoming on CBS. He lives in LA with his family.