Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s every-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together–to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is available in January 2016 from Tor Books. Read chapter two below, and come back all week for additional excerpts!
He hated to be called Larry. Couldn’t stand it. And so, of course, everybody called him Larry, even his parents sometimes. “My name is Laurence,” he would insist, looking at the floor. “With a U, not a W.” Laurence knew who he was and what he was about, but the world refused to recognize.
At school, the other kids called him Larry Barry or Larry Fairy. Or, when he got mad, Scary Larry, except that this was a rare display of irony among his troglodyte classmates, since, in fact, Larry was not scary at all. Usually, this was preceded by an “Ooh,” just to drive the joke home. Not that Laurence wanted to be scary. He just wanted to be left alone and maybe have people get his name right if they had to talk to him.
Laurence was a small kid for his age, with hair the color of late-autumn leaves, a long chin, and arms like snail necks. His parents bought him clothes one and a half sizes too big, because they kept thinking he would hit a growth spurt any day, and they were trying to save money. So he was forever tripping over his too-long, too-baggy jeans legs, his hands vanishing inside his jersey sleeves. Even if Laurence had wanted to present an intimidating figure, his lack of visible hands and feet would have made it difficult.
The only bright spots in Laurence’s life were ultraviolent PlayStation games, in which he vaporized thousands of imaginary opponents. But then Laurence found other games on the internet—puzzles that took him hours to figure out and MMOs, where Laurence waged intricate campaigns. Before long, Laurence was writing his own code.
Laurence’s dad had been pretty great with computers, once. But then he’d grown up and gotten a job in the insurance industry, where he still needed a head for numbers, but it wasn’t anything you’d want to hear about. Now he was always freaking out that he was going to lose his job and then they would all starve. Laurence’s mom had been working on a PhD in biology, before she’d gotten pregnant and her thesis advisor had quit, and then she’d taken some time off and never quite gone back to school.
Both parents worried endlessly about Laurence spending every waking minute in front of a computer and turning out socially dysfunctional, like his Uncle Davis. So they forced Laurence to take an endless succession of classes designed to make him Get Out of the House: judo, modern dance, fencing, water polo for beginners, swimming, improv comedy, boxing, skydiving, and, worst of all, Wilderness Survival Weekends. Each class only forced Laurence to wear another baggy uniform while the kids shouted, “Larry, Larry, Quite Contrary!” and held him underwater, and threw him out of the airplane early, and forced him to do improv while holding him upside down by his ankles.
Laurence wondered if there was some other kid, named Larry, who would have a “let’s go” attitude about being dropped on a mountainside somewhere. Larry might be the alternate-universe version of Laurence, and maybe all Laurence needed to do was harness all the solar energy that hit the Earth during a period of five minutes or so and he could generate a localized space-time fissure in his bathtub and go kidnap Larry from the other universe. So Larry could go out and get tormented instead, while Laurence stayed home. The hard part would be figuring out a way to poke a hole in the universe before the judo tournament in two weeks’ time.
“Hey, Larry Fairy,” Brad Chomner said at school, “think fast.” Which was one of those phrases that never made sense to Laurence: People who told you to “think fast” were always those who thought much more slowly than you did. And they only said it when they were about to do something to contribute to the collective mental inertia. And yet Laurence had never come up with the perfect comeback to “Think fast,” and he wouldn’t have time to say whatever it was, since something unpleasant usually hit him a second later. Laurence had to go clean himself up.
One day, Laurence found some schematics on the internet, which he printed out and reread a hundred times before he started figuring out what they meant. And once he combined them with a solar-battery design that he found buried in an old message-board post, he started to have something. He stole his dad’s old waterproof wristwatch and combined it with some parts he scavenged from a bunch of microwave ovens and cell phones. And a few odds and ends from the electronics store. At the end of all this, he had a working time machine that fit on his wrist.
The device was simple: There was just one small button. Any time you pressed the button, you would jump forward in time two seconds. That was all it could do. There was no way to extend the range or go backwards. Laurence tried filming himself with his webcam and found that when he pressed the button, he did sort of disappear for an eyeblink or two. But you could only use it once in a while, or you got the worst head rush of your life.
A few days later, Brad Chomner said, “Think fast,” and Laurence did think fast. He hit the button on his wrist. The white blob that had been hurtling in his direction landed in front of him with a splat. Everybody looked at Laurence, and at the soggy toilet paper roll melting into the floor tiles, and then back at Laurence. Laurence put his “watch” into sleep mode, meaning it wouldn’t work for anybody else who tinkered with it. But he needn’t have worried—everybody just thought Laurence had ducked, with superhuman reflexes. Mr. Grandison came huffing out of his classroom and asked who threw this toilet paper, and everybody said it was Laurence.
Being able to skip two seconds could be quite useful—if you picked the right two seconds. Like when you’re at the dinner table with your parents and your mom has just said something sarcastic about your dad being passed over for another promotion, and you just know your father is about to let out a brief but lethal burst of resentment. You need godlike timing to pick the exact instant when the barb is being launched. There are a hundred leading indicators: the scent of overcooked casserole, the sensation of the room’s temperature dropping slightly. The ticking of the stove, powering down. You can leave reality behind and reappear for the aftermath.
But there were plenty of other occasions. Like when Al Danes flung him off the jungle gym onto the playground sand. He dematerialized just as he landed. Or when some popular girl was about to come up and pretend to be nice to him, just so she could laugh about it to her friends as they walked away. Or just when a teacher started an especially dull rant. Even shaving off two seconds made a difference. Nobody seemed to notice that he flickered out of being, maybe because you had to be looking right at him and nobody ever was. If only Laurence could have used the device more than a few times a day without the headaches.
Besides, jumping forward in time just underscored the basic problem: Laurence had nothing to look forward to.
At least, that’s how Laurence felt, until he saw the picture of the sleek shape, glinting in the sunlight. He stared at the tapering curves, the beautiful nose cone, and the powerful engines, and something awoke inside him. A feeling he hadn’t experienced in ages: excitement. This privately funded, DIY spaceship was going up into orbit, thanks to maverick tech investor Milton Dirth and a few dozen of his maker friends and MIT students. The launch would happen in a few days, near the MIT campus, and Laurence had to be there. He hadn’t ever wanted anything the way he wanted to see this for himself.
“Dad,” Laurence said. He had already gotten off to a bad start: His father was staring at his laptop, cupping his hands as though trying to protect his mustache, the ends of which seeped into the heavy lines around his mouth. Laurence had picked a bad time to do this. Too late. He was committed. “Dad,” Laurence said again. “There’s a rocket test, sort of, on Tuesday. Here’s the article about it.”
Laurence’s dad started to brush him off, but then some half-forgotten resolution to make time for parenting kicked in. “Oh.” He kept looking back at his laptop, which had a spreadsheet on it, until he slammed it shut and gave Laurence as much attention as he could call undivided. “Yeah. I heard about that. It’s that Dirth guy. Huh. Some kind of lightweight prototype, right? That could be used to land on the dark side of the Moon eventually. I heard about that.” Then Laurence’s dad was joking about an old band called Floyd and marijuana and ultraviolet light.
“Yeah.” Laurence cut into his dad’s flow before the conversation got away from him. “That’s right. Milton Dirth. And I really want to go see it. This is like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I thought maybe we could make it a father-son thing.” His dad couldn’t turn down a father-son thing, or it would be like admitting to being a bad father.
“Oh.” His dad had an embarrassed look in his deep-set eyes, behind his square glasses. “You want to go? This coming Tuesday?”
“But… I mean, I have work. There’s a project, and I have to ace this one, or it’s going to look bad. And I know your mother would be upset if we just took you out of school like that. Plus, I mean, you can watch it on the computer. There’ll be a webcam feed or something. You know that these things are boring in person. It’s a lot of standing around, and they end up delaying it half the time. You won’t even see anything if you’re there. You’ll get a way better view via the web.” Laurence’s dad sounded as though he was trying to convince himself as much as his son.
Laurence nodded. There was no point in arguing, once his father had started piling on reasons. So Laurence said nothing, until he could safely back away. Then he went up to his room and looked at bus schedules.
A few days later, while his parents were still asleep, Laurence tiptoed downstairs and found his mom’s purse on the little side table near the front door. He opened the clasp as if a live animal could jump out. Every noise in the house sounded too loud: the coffeemaker heating up, and the refrigerator buzzing. Laurence found a leather wallet inside the purse and pulled out fifty bucks. He had never stolen before. He kept expecting police officers to burst in the front door and cuff him.
The second phase of Laurence’s plan involved going face-to-face with his mom right after he’d robbed her. He caught up with her when she’d just woken up, still bleary in her marigold robe, and told her there was a school field trip and he needed her to write a note saying it was okay for him to go. (He had already figured out a great universal truth, that people never asked for documentation of anything, as long as you asked them for documentation first.) Laurence’s mom pulled out a stubby ergonomic pen and scrawled a permission slip. Her manicure was peeling. Laurence said it might be an overnight trip, in which case he would call. She nodded, bright red curls bouncing.
Walking to the bus stop, Laurence had a nervous moment. He was going on a big trip on his own, nobody knew where he was, and he only had fifty dollars in his pocket, plus a fake Roman coin. What if someone jumped out from behind the Dumpsters by the strip mall and attacked Laurence? What if someone dragged him into their truck and drove him hundreds of miles before changing his name to Darryl and forcing him to live as their homeschooled son? Laurence had seen a TV movie about this.
But then Laurence remembered the wilderness weekends, and the fact that he’d found fresh water and edible roots, and even scared off this one chipmunk that had seemed intent on fighting him for the trail mix. He’d hated every second, but if he could survive that, then he could handle taking a bus into Cambridge and figuring out how to get to the launch site. He was Laurence of Ellenburg, and he was unflappable. Laurence had just figured out that “unflappable” did not have anything to do with whether people could mess up your clothing, and now he used that word as much as he could.
“I am unflappable,” Laurence told the bus driver. Who shrugged, as if he’d thought so too, once upon a time, until someone had flapped him.
Laurence had packed a bunch of supplies, but he’d only brought one book, a slender paperback about the last great interplanetary war. Laurence finished that book in an hour, and then he had nothing to do but stare out the window. The trees along the highway seemed to slow down as the bus passed alongside them, then sped up again. A kind of time dilation.
The bus arrived in Boston, and then Laurence had to find the T station. He walked into Chinatown, where there were people selling stuff on the street and restaurants with enormous fish tanks in their windows, as though the fish wanted to inspect potential customers before they would be allowed in. And then Laurence was crossing the water and the Museum of Science was gleaming in the morning sun, opening its steeland-glass arms to him and brandishing its Planetarium.
It wasn’t until Laurence reached the MIT campus and he was standing in front of the Legal Sea Foods, trying to make sense of the map of coded buildings, that he realized he had no idea how to find where this rocket launch was happening.
Laurence had imagined he would arrive at MIT and it would look like a bigger version of Murchison Elementary School, with front steps and a bulletin board where people posted upcoming activities. Laurence couldn’t even get into the first couple buildings he tried. He did find a board where people had posted notices for lectures, and dating advice, and the Ig Nobel Awards. But no mention of how to watch the big launch.
Laurence ended up in Au Bon Pain, eating a corn muffin and feeling like a dope. If he could get on the internet, maybe he could figure out what to do next, but his parents wouldn’t let him have a phone yet, much less a laptop. The café was playing mournful oldies: Janet Jackson saying she got so lonely, Britney Spears confessing she did it again. He cooled each sip of hot chocolate with a long breath, while he tried to strategize.
Laurence’s book was gone. The one he’d been reading on the bus. He had put it on the table near his muffin, and now it was gone. No, wait— it was in the hands of a woman in her twenties, with long brown braids, a wide face, and a red sweater that was so fuzzy it practically had hair. She had callused hands and work boots. She was turning Laurence’s book over and over in her hands. “Sorry,” she said. “I remember this book. I read it like three times in high school. This is the one with the binary star system that goes to war with the AIs who live in the asteroid belt. Right?”
“Um, yeah,” Laurence said.
“Good choice.” Now she was checking out Laurence’s wrist. “Hey. That’s a two-second time machine, isn’t it?”
“Um, yeah,” Laurence said.
“Cool. I have one too.” She showed him. It looked about the same as Laurence’s, except it was a little smaller and it had a calculator. “It took me ages to figure out those diagrams online. It’s like a little test of engineering skill and moxie and stuff, and in the end you get a little device with a thousand uses. Mind if I sit down? I’m standing over you and it makes me feel like an authority figure.”
Laurence said that was okay. He was having a hard time contributing to this conversation. The woman sat in front of him and the remains of his muffin. Now that he was at eye level with her, she was sort of pretty. She had a cute nose and round chin. She reminded him of a Social Studies teacher he’d had a crush on last year.
“I’m Isobel,” said the woman. “I’m a rocket scientist.” It turned out she’d shown up for the big rocket launch, but it was delayed because of some last-minute problems and weather and stuff. “It’ll probably be in a few days. You know how these things go.”
“Oh.” Laurence looked into his hot-chocolate foam. So that was it. He wasn’t going to get to see anything. Somehow he’d let himself believe that if he saw a rocket blast off, something that had been right in front of him and was now free of our planet’s gravity, he would be set free, too. He could go back to school and it wouldn’t matter because he’d been connected to something that was in outer space.
Now he was just going to be the freak who ditched school for nothing. He looked at the cover of the paperback, which had a painting of a lumpy spaceship and a naked woman with eyes for breasts. He didn’t start to cry or anything, but he kind of wanted to. The paperback cover said: “THEY WENT TO THE ENDS OF THE UNIVERSE—TO STOP A GALACTIC DISASTER!”
“Drat,” Laurence said. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“No problem,” Isobel said. She told him more about the rocket launch and just how revolutionary this new design was, stuff he already knew, and then she noticed he was looking miserable. “Hey, don’t worry. It’s just delayed a few days.”
“Yeah, but,” Laurence said, “I won’t be able to be here then.”
“I will be otherwise occupied. I have a prior engagement.” Laurence stammered a little. He kneaded the edge of the table, so the skin on his hot chocolate grew ridges.
“You must be a busy man,” Isobel said. “It sounds as though you have a packed schedule.”
“Actually,” Laurence said. “Every day is the same as every other day. Except for today.” And now he did start to cry. Goddamn it.
“Hey.” Isobel abandoned her chair opposite him and came to sit next to him. “Hey. Hey. It’s okay. Listen, do your parents know where you are?”
“Not…” Laurence sniffled. “Not as such.” He wound up telling her the whole deal, how he’d stolen fifty bucks from his mom, how he’d ditched school and taken the bus and the T. As he told Isobel, he started to feel bad for making his parents worry, but also he knew with increasing certainty that this stunt would not be repeatable. Not a few days from now, at any rate.
“Okay,” Isobel said. “Wow. Well, I guess I oughta call your parents. It’ll take them a while to get here, though. Especially with the confusing directions I’m going to give them for getting to the launch site.”
“Launch site? But…”
“Since that’s where you’re going to be, by the time they arrive.” She patted Laurence’s shoulder. He had stopped crying, thank god, and was pulling himself back into shape. “Come on, I’m going to show you the rocket. I’ll give you the tour, and introduce you to some of the people.”
She stood up and offered Laurence her hand. He took it.
And that was how Laurence got to meet a dozen or so of the coolest rocket nerds on Earth. Isobel drove him there in her tobacco-scented red Mustang, and Laurence’s feet were buried under Frito bags. Laurence heard MC Frontalot for the first time on her car stereo. “Have you ever read Heinlein? Maybe a little grown-up, but I bet you could handle his juveniles. Here.” She dug around in the backseat and handed him a battered paperback called Have Space Suit—Will Travel, which had a pleasingly lurid cover. She said he could keep it, she had another copy.
They drove along Memorial Drive and then through an endless series of identical highways and switchbacks and tunnels, and Laurence realized Isobel was right: His parents would get lost several times trying to come pick him up, even if she gave them perfect, nonconfusing directions. They always complained that driving in Boston was asking for it. The afternoon grew duller as clouds set in, but Laurence didn’t care.
“Behold,” Isobel said, “a single-stage Earth-to-orbit rocket. I drove all the way from Virginia just to help with this. My boyfriend is crazy jealous.”
It was two or three times Laurence’s size, housed in a barn near the water. It glimmered, its pale metal shell catching the streaks of light through the barn windows. Isobel walked Laurence around it, showing him all the cool features, including the carbon nanofiber insulation around the fuel systems and the lightweight silicate/organic polymer casing on the actual engines.
Laurence reached out and touched the rocket, feeling the dimpled skin with his fingertips. People started wandering up, demanding to know who this kid was and why he was touching their precious rocket.
“That’s delicate equipment.” A tight-lipped man in a turtleneck sweater folded his arms.
“We can’t have just random kids running around our rocket barn,” a small woman in overalls said.
“Laurence,” Isobel said. “Show them.” He knew what she meant.
He reached down to his right wrist with his left hand and pressed the little button. He felt the familiar sensation, like a skipped heartbeat or a double breath, that lasted no time at all. And then it was two seconds later, and he was still standing next to a beautiful rocket in a ring of people, who were all staring at him. Everybody clapped. Laurence noticed they were all wearing things on their wrists too, like this was a trend. Or a badge.
After that, they treated him like one of them. He had conquered a small piece of time, and they were conquering a small piece of space. They understood, as he did, that this was a down payment. One day, they would own a much bigger share of the cosmos, or their descendants would. You celebrated the small victories, and you dreamed of the big ones to come.
“Hey kid,” one hairy guy in jeans and sandals said. “Check out what I did with this thruster design. It’s pretty sweet.”
“What we did,” Isobel corrected him.
Turtleneck Guy was older, in his thirties or forties, maybe even fifties, with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and big eyebrows. He kept asking Laurence questions and making notes on his phone. He asked Laurence to spell his name, twice. “Remind me to look you up on your eighteenth birthday, kid,” he said. Someone brought Laurence a soda and pizza.
By the time Laurence’s parents arrived, boiling in their own skins after having to figure out the Turnpike and Storrow Drive and the tunnels and everything, Laurence had become the mascot of the Single-Stage Orbital Rocket Gang. On the long drive home, Laurence tuned out his parents explaining to him that life isn’t an adventure, for chrissake, life is a long slog and a series of responsibilities and demands. When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.
The sun went down. The family stopped for burgers and more lecturing. Laurence kept sneaking looks under the table at his propped-open copy of Have Space Suit—Will Travel. He was already halfway through the book.
Excerpted from All the Birds in the Sky © Charlie Jane Anders, 2015