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The Time Travel Club

Charlie Jane Anders

Hugo-Award winning author Charlie Jane Anders is the managing editor of io9.com, a site about science and science fiction. She organizes the monthly San Francisco reading series Writers With Drinks, which combines science fiction, literary fiction, and other genres. Her work has appeared in Tor.com, Lightspeed Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, ZYZZYVA, The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes, and a few year’s best SF anthologies. Charlie Jane’s first story for us takes a look at the intriguing group of people who make up . . .

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 was 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 toward 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,” said 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 toward 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 afterward 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 of 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 satchel 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 upward 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 four hundred 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 two hundred and sixteen cubic feet or about two hundred 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 toward 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 toward 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.

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