From Annalee Newitz comes a story of time travel, murder, and the lengths we’ll go to protect the ones we love. The Future of Another Timeline publishes September 24th with Tor Books. Read chapter three below, or head back to the beginning with chapters one and two.
1992: After a confrontation at a riot grrl concert, seventeen-year-old Beth finds herself in a car with her friend’s abusive boyfriend dead in the backseat, agreeing to help her friends hide the body. This murder sets Beth and her friends on a path of escalating violence and vengeance as they realize many other young women in the world need protecting too.
2022: Determined to use time travel to create a safer future, Tess has dedicated her life to visiting key moments in history and fighting for change. But rewriting the timeline isn’t as simple as editing one person or event. And just when Tess believes she’s found a way to make an edit that actually sticks, she encounters a group of dangerous travelers bent on stopping her at any cost.
Tess and Beth’s lives intertwine as war breaks out across the timeline—a war that threatens to destroy time travel and leave only a small group of elites with the power to shape the past, present, and future. Against the vast and intricate forces of history and humanity, is it possible for a single person’s actions to echo throughout the timeline?
Flin Flon, Manitoba-Saskatchewan border (1992 C.E.)…
Los Angeles, Alta California (2022 C.E.)
I stood inside a vast hangar, ceiling so high that it sometimes generated its own puffs of cloud and misty rain. The floor was pure Canadian shield bedrock, a piebald of red and gray veined with white, covered in a few patches of hardscrabble lichen. Here, the Earth’s crust had endured virtually unchanged for over 3 billion years, studded with metal deposits and ambiguous Cambrian fossils. The five known Machines had all been found in places like this, their control interfaces embedded in rock that originated before life evolved on land.
Facing me was a row of refrigerator-sized server racks connected by fat wires to bulky CRT monitors on desks, cameras on metal stalks, and something that looked like the severed head of a traffic light whose color signals had been replaced with atmospheric sensors. Travelers in the process of leaving or arriving lined up outside the processing booth on the opposite side of the hangar, their voices nearly indistinguishable from the nearby hum of the servers. A professor wandered past the equipment, trailed by a clot of excited students and postdocs. They had come to watch the Machine startup sequence.
A couple of techs typed on rugged keyboards, booting up the six tappers arranged in a circle around me. Half a billion years ago, these Machines had a sophisticated command interface made from what geoscientists called the ring and the canopy, but now all that was left was the rocky floor. The tappers, invented in the nineteenth century and refined in decades since, were crude, limited versions of what those old interfaces must have been. They looked like low steel tables punctuated by dozens of pistons, now moving up and down in a test pattern. Essentially the tapper was a reconfigurable set of padded hammers—much like those inside a piano—that would bang out a pattern on the rock. That pattern programmed the interface, and the interface would open a stable wormhole between the present and the traveler’s chosen destination in the past. With these humble devices, we manipulated the fabric of the cosmos.
Geoscientists barely understood the Machines better than the first humans to describe them in writing thousands of years ago. Sure, we could control the exit date more precisely than our Bronze Age ancestors. Our tappers could produce complex rhythms that were accurate to the microsecond. So that was progress. We knew each Machine consisted of an interface within the rock, though so far our instruments could not detect anything in the rock other than the expected elements. Then there was a wormhole that came from… somewhere. Sadly, our biggest breakthrough was probably that we understood the Machines’ behavior in the context of geology, rather than magic. Even after thousands of years of using them, we still didn’t know much about how they worked, let alone why.
“Ready when you are.” The tech with red hair and flushed cheeks looked up at me and made a shooing gesture.
I made sure I was at the exact center of the tapper circle, knelt, and put my fists against the rock. There was the thrum of the hammers, their rhythms vibrating my whole body until I couldn’t tell where my skin ended and the Earth began. That’s when the rock softened to liquid. A wet-but-not-wet fluid rose past my hands, then waist, blurring the warehouse walls as it crept past my eyes, enveloping me in a shimmering cylindrical column. It took me a second to adjust to the familiar, uncanny sensation of breathing in water.
Then I sank into the wormhole.
Textbooks say it’s like submerging yourself in a warm bath, but that’s only one sensation. There are many textures as you slide between nanoseconds: fine dust, cool gas, feathery ash. They’re probably all illusions created by the brain in the absence of perception. Or maybe they’re real, for some value of “reality.” There’s a lot of ambiguity in the geosciences. Sometimes people enter the wormhole and never return. We’re left to speculate about whether they stayed deep in the past or were erased in transit. Floating toward my possible death, I always got slightly superstitious. So I had a ritual. I tried to focus on the molecular composition of my thoughts. As long as that skein of sugars, tissues, and electrons functioned, I was still myself. Chemicals pulsed through my brain and I waited.
After minutes or millennia, there was a hazy light ahead, like fire through warped glass. Then solid ground knit itself together beneath me, the liquid drained away, and I could breathe air again. I was in the same position, kneeling, dry except for the place where my knuckles and knees met the salty puddle left by a mostly incomprehensible doorway into spacetime.
The techs in 2022 didn’t look much different from the ones I’d left behind in 1992. Same fieldwork chic: heavy boots, easy-wash pants, and padded canvas jackets with the colorful Flin Flon Time Travel Facility logo embroidered over the right breast. Everyone wore toques. It could get chilly up here, even in summer.
The far end of the hangar was occupied by the same processing office full of battered metal furniture. Inside, a Canadian government official was eating bannock and reading a paperback with swords on the cover. Outside was a line of about fifteen people, waiting for her to check them in or out of the present. I tried to figure out if any of them had come down from the future. Nobody stuck out as particularly anachronistic, and I decided we were all probably in our own present. So far, geologists had only figured out how to make the Machines send us to the past, and it always seemed like most of the traffic here consisted of people going back into history or returning from it.
Once the union-mandated lunch break ended, our queue moved pretty fast. The official looked up when I opened the door. “Identification?”
I raised my shirt to show the identity tattoo, a unique design created by algorithm and drawn partly with fluorescent ink as a half-hearted security measure. The university paid to have it needled into the skin of my left side before I traveled for the first time. Beneath a maze of tangled lines and dots was my date of birth: 1974 c.e. Most people looked exclusively at the date, especially in times before the 1930s. Sure, magistrates and monks in the 400s had heard about our computer-generated codes, but they didn’t have a way to read them. Until somebody figured out how to transport objects through time, or persuaded the masses of another era to build anachronisms at great expense, people were pretty much stuck with the tech of their age.
She swiped a bulky handheld reader over my tattoo, and peered at her monitor. “What was your business in 1992?”
“I’m a geoscientist from UCLA, doing some fieldwork for the Applied Cultural Geology Lab. I was at a concert.”
“What kind of concert?”
“A rock concert, in California. Do you know the band Grape Ape?”
The fan on her computer whined as she typed. “Nope. Was that one of those grunge bands?”
I flashed back to what “grunge” had meant to me when I lived through 1992 for the first time. “No. They’re something different.”
She didn’t bother to ask anything else. I’d been using this Machine for most of my academic career, and there was a long digital record of my comings and goings. No need for further investigation.
Outside the damp hangar, I took a walk through the sprawling Flin Flon Time Travel campus. The air smelled faintly of mown grass, and people were out having lunch at picnic tables dotting the open plazas between buildings that hugged the northern edge of Ross Lake. The campus was deceptively peaceful. All those buildings were teeming with bureaucrats, operatives from vaguely menacing state agencies, travel reps for every possible industry, and quite a few scientific labs.
I caught a shuttle to the airport, rolling past strip malls, housing tracts, and a cavernous Canadian Tire. The city had changed a lot since the late nineteenth century, where I did most of my observation. Back then, Flin Flon was nothing more than a few cuts in the ground surrounded by tents and shacks, a podunk mining town named after an interdimensional traveler from a pulp novel. When prospectors discovered the world’s fifth known Machine, all that changed. Flin Flon was hardly a megacity, but now it was a thriving urban hub on the border between northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, supporting a steady stream of visitors whose jobs touched the timeline.
Many of those visitors were a captive audience, waiting out their 1,669 days to qualify for travel. All five Machines had limitations, but the hardest to surmount was what travelers called the Long Four Years. Wormholes only opened for people who remained within twenty kilometers of a Machine for at least 1,680 days. The number seemed arbitrary until geologists realized that it was roughly the length of four years during the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago, when the Earth was spinning faster. Cambrian days were roughly three hours shorter than ours, meaning the years were about 417 days long. Any device designed to measure years using a set number of day-night cycles, rather than revolutions around the sun, would wind up with longer and longer “years” as the eons passed.
I spent the Long Four Years working in a small Flin Flon lab surrounded by trees, returning home each night to a nougat-colored block of subsidized student housing on the Saskatchewan side of town. Through my dirty double-paned windows, I could see a golf course and condo complex for rich people with time to squander on a chance at temporal tourism. But that was rare. Most people in Flin Flon were there for work or professional training. All of us doing the Four Long Years were hoping it would pay off in a travel certification from the Chronology Academy.
After the revisionist assassinations during World War I, the five nations with Machines—India, Jordan, Australia, Canada, and Mali— founded the Chronology Academy, which imposed international law on all five travel complexes. Other member nations created additional rules to govern travelers, but Canada and the U.S. went strictly by Chronology Academy regulations. Which made things easy for me, but sticky for travelers from places that had stricter laws—or looser ones.
We rolled up to the airport terminal, a long brick building with four gates that mostly serviced puddle jumpers to Winnipeg and Saskatoon. I had a couple hours to kill before a tiring series of flights and layovers, so I poked idly through my e-mail and news alerts. A story was bubbling up from the conspiracy networks about how a traveler from the 2020s had caused climate change by going back in time and teaching people to use fossil fuels. I rolled my eyes. If only it were that simple.
As travelers, we could observe, maybe spy, and sometimes save a life. But centuries of scientific inquiry suggested that it was extremely difficult for one person to alter the timeline in all but the most superficial ways. You couldn’t cause the world to industrialize before the eighteenth century, nor could you change the fate of nations by assassinating a famous leader. After killing the nineteenth-century tyrant Emmanuel, travelers were frustrated to find that Napoleon laid waste to Europe instead. It was the same discovery that travelers from the Tang Dynasty had made centuries before. There was no way to stop the Sogdian warlord An Lushan’s rebellion. Slaying one Sogdian warlord simply spawned another who rose against the emperor. An Lushan was the third one to rise; his sack of the legendary city of Chang’an could not be edited from the timeline.
Geoscientists of the early twenty-first century eventually settled on the theory that small things change but big things don’t. Trying to cause a significant divergence in the timeline was simply bad science, a honeypot for fools and failing tyrants. It was also against Chronology Academy regulations.
The Daughters of Harriet had a different theory. Call it a hypothesis if you must. Geologists agreed that the timeline was constantly in flux. Travelers exposed to edits returned with memories of lost histories, previous versions of the timeline they had witnessed. Agents and corporate operatives occasionally alluded to covert missions to shift the balance of power. Ancient scrolls contained references to travelers offering magical revelations that changed people’s fates. It seemed obvious to the Daughters that we lived in a heavily edited timeline, and that small changes could add up to something bigger.
One did not admit that at academic conferences, however, so we had a cover story. The Daughters of Harriet had an official name, the Applied Cultural Geology Group, with the mandate to observe major social transformations as they happened in the past. We’d been recognized as a legitimate scholarly organization by the American Geophysical Union, which made it easier to apply for grants and schedule trips on the Machines. Every month we had a research meeting at my best friend Anita’s house in Brentwood, close to the UCLA campus where we worked. There, we did a lot more than share discoveries and scotch. We made plans to edit history.
Los Angeles glowed with smoky orange light as we touched down. Fire season had come early this year, and it was yet another reminder that I was back home in 2022, when industrialization meant dystopia rather than progress. I caught a rideshare to Anita’s place and felt the familiar dislocation of homecoming as we rolled past bungalows with high-performance windows and fake lawns. After years spent in the past, it was hard to feel like the present was anything more than ephemeral. Everywhere I looked, I saw previous versions of the city: these streets were once ruled by horse-drawn wagons, then cable cars, then finned Chevy convertibles full of kids in zoot suits inching past giant movie theater marquees. Today we drove through merely one version of Los Angeles, balanced in a precarious moment, and always on the brink of disappearing.
When I arrived, Anita was putting out cheese and crackers, her flip-flops smacking the tile floor as she wandered between kitchen and living room. Snowy dreads fell in an elegant cascade around her dark, angular face. Hugging her, I felt something solid for the first time since returning to my present.
“How was your trip?”
I dumped my backpack on the sofa and flopped next to it. “Tiring. Weird.”
Anita raised an eyebrow and put out a bottle of Balvenie. After the living room had filled with a dozen people, snacking and chatting, Anita called the meeting to order.
We always started by going around the circle, describing lost histories we remembered. There were many events that existed only in our memories because we’d been present for the edits. We recited these stories partly as a ritual, and partly to update each other on current research projects.
Enid got us started. “I remember the Family Tax Reform Bill of 1988, which gave tax breaks to any family where the women could prove they had quit their jobs to become homemakers.” That was a new one for me. Enid, a Chinese American woman with salty hair cut into a dapper fade, had recently gotten back from the late eighties. There were murmurs of thanks from the group for deleting that particular gem out of our current version.
“I remember this café chain called Farrell’s that used to have outlets all over L.A.” Shweta reported her memory with a puzzled face. “Now it’s gone. It seems like there are more Starbucks, too, but it’s hard to tell.”
“Wait—why would a café chain disappear? Did you travel to the period when it first opened, or do something to the people who worked there?” C.L. always asked questions like that, usually while picking delicately at the sparkly designs in their latest nail art. They’d only been traveling for a few months, after working on a Ph.D. in shield rock formation. Their work focused on the physical mechanism of time travel, so they were still getting used to applied history.
Shweta gave C.L. a tired look. Her brown eyes were sharp, but the skin around them was far more weathered than it had been last month. I realized she might have been away for years. “I was in Bermuda observing the slave trade,” she said at last. “And it was 1723 when I left.”
“But there must be some connection.” C.L. sounded almost desperate. They wrapped a lock of hair around their fingers, and I noticed that they’d glued tiny red rhinestones to each nail.
“There probably is, but we can’t always figure it out. That’s why we call them orthogonal deletions,” I said, shrugging. “We often see small, random changes like that and the causality is so complex that it’s impossible to say why they happened.”
Anita looked up from the tablet where she kept our change log and spoke. “Let’s continue the circle.” She paused. “I remember abortion being legal in the United States.”
There were a couple murmurs of “me too.” It was unusual for multiple people to remember a deleted event. Anita thought this meant the change to abortion’s legal status was the product of multiple edits and reversions, its effects felt by many travelers exposed to various edits as they took. I wasn’t one of them. Like nearly everyone on the planet, I had no memories of legal abortion in the United States.
Back when I was training at Flin Flon, I’d promised myself I was going to revert that edit if I got my credentials. That’s what pulled me back to the nineteenth century again and again, to haunt the edges of Comstock’s influence, seeking cracks where an edit might take. It was an intriguing historical problem, but my interest wasn’t purely academic. I had other reasons, their roots tangled up in old feelings. Until I saw Grape Ape again, I thought I’d managed to replace those messy personal desires with clean political aspirations. Now I had to admit it was impossible for me to tell them apart. And maybe, with the right strategy, I didn’t have to.
“I think I’ve found hard evidence that we’re in an edit war with anti-travel activists.” My announcement got everybody’s attention. “I was in 1992, at a Grape Ape show.” I filled them in about the Com-stocker. “Seems like he and his buddies are trying to make some final edits before trying to shut down the Machines. The question is—”
Anita cut me off. “Wait, why were you in 1992? Your period is the nineteenth century.”
I was confused. “Berenice told me to go. She had evidence that anti-travel activists were hanging around the indie rock scene. Grape Ape caused a huge controversy around this time—the Vice Fighters kept going on TV calling them obscene feminazis, so they became punk heroes. This concert would have been catnip for Comstockers trying to target young women with one last reversion.”
I remembered the conversation clearly, at our last meeting. Berenice wanted to go herself, but she’d burned out of most of the 1990s. One of the hazards of studying a specific period was that the Machine would not open its wormhole for people tapping back to a time they’d visited before. We called those times “burned”; it was annoying, but it also prevented people from returning to the same moment over and over, destructively reliving or reediting a targeted stretch.
“Berenice?” C.L. was playing nervously with their phone. “Who’s that? Does she study the 1990s?”
“What do you mean? Berenice! Our friend? She published a huge book about the origins of trans activism in the 1990s. UC Press made it one of their featured titles in the fall catalogue.”
“No… I don’t know her…” Shweta, one of the most tough-minded scientists I knew, was at a loss for words.
“Does anyone remember Berenice?” Fear was crawling along my spine.
Everyone was shaking their heads. C.L. poked their phone again. “What was Berenice’s last name?”
“Ciccione. She was… shit… she’s been coming to these meetings for years.” I spluttered to a stop as the reality sank in. Berenice had been edited. And then I looked at Enid and realized something horrifying. “Enid, you and Berenice were partners… you were about to move in together…”
Enid drew in a sharp breath. “What? That can’t be. I can’t have lost…” She trailed off, her eyes searching our faces. But there was nothing we could do. How do you help someone mourn a lover they don’t remember?
Shweta spoke gently. “Tess. You said she was researching trans activism?”
She held out her phone, its screen illuminated by a 1992 AP article dredged from the Nexis database. It was about a person police described as “a man in a dress,” murdered outside a gay bar in Raleigh. There was a grainy picture of Berenice, unmistakable mop of curls forming a crazy halo around her much younger face. My throat constricted. “They’ve misgendered and deadnamed her, but that’s definitely Berenice.”
Nothing like this had ever happened before. At least, not that we knew of. I looked around the room. Was it possible that more of us had been edited out of the timeline, and we didn’t remember? I spoke without thinking. “We have to go back there and revert that edit.”
Enid shook her head slowly, eyes reddening. “We need to do a lot more than that.”
Foreboding settled over the room.
“Who would make edits like this? By literally killing travelers?” This time, C.L.’s question didn’t seem naïve. We were all wondering the same thing.
“Do you think this has anything to do with the man from the concert, the Comstocker?” Anita mused. “Berenice sent you to look for him, right?”
“Yeah. It’s possible these guys saw Berenice as a threat to their cause. Especially if they knew she was onto them. So they murdered her younger self.”
C.L. blinked in shock, and accidentally popped a rhinestone off their thumbnail. For once, they had no questions.
Anita coped with the stress by going into analysis mode. “So let’s assume there’s a group of travelers working with Comstock, who are reverting some of our edits. And some of us.” Her voice cracked. “If this is part of a larger plan to lock us into a timeline that can’t be changed, what is their goal with these edits? Is it something about Comstock?”
“I don’t think it’s Comstock himself.” I fought to stay focused, despite my rising panic. Who else had those men erased from our memories? “Their zine was all about why women shouldn’t go to college. And the guy who talked to me—he sounded like some mashup of a Comstock speech and the Celibate4Life forums we see today. They could be infiltrating different movements over centuries. Comstock’s Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully eliminated abortion and access to birth control, so it would appeal to anyone who wanted a timeline where women’s rights are restricted. I think they must be coordinating a much bigger edit across several time periods.”
“What else do we know?” Anita was typing on her tablet.
Enid cleared her throat. “If you’re wondering why they were in 1992, there was a huge backlash against feminism at that time. It probably started with obscenity law reforms—specifically, reforms of the Comstock Laws.”
“So could they be C4L types from our present, going back to key periods for women’s rights?” C.L. asked.
I had a more urgent question. “What if they’re from the future?”
Anita gave me a sharp look. “What difference would that make?”
“It could mean that they know something we don’t. They might be responding to a future feminist revolution.”
“Future feminist revolution. Give me a break.” Shweta snorted. “That’s not how history works. Every so-called revolution is simply a long, drawn-out series of profound compromises and cooptations.”
“There are revolutions. Maybe they take time, but there are huge changes.” I felt my cheeks getting hot. “Sometimes we don’t compromise. Sometimes we do things like abolish slavery and declare universal suffrage.”
“And then spend the next century and a half trying to make brown people into slaves again.”
“We’re derailing here.” Anita was always the voice of reason. “The fact is that we don’t have enough data to know when these dudes are from, and we can’t go to the future. Still, we know they’re out there now. It’s possible that they’re working directly against the Daughters of Harriet, or maybe against women’s rights more generally. Either way, it’s probably related to why our memories are so divided on reproductive rights.”
“So what should we do about it?” Shweta folded her arms.
“I’m going to 1992 to stop those fuckers from murdering Berenice.” Enid was shaking with a determination that wavered between sadness and fury.
Shweta was nodding. “You’re pretty familiar with the time period from traveling to the eighties, so that’s not a bad plan.” Then she touched Enid’s arm, and spoke without any of her usual impatience. “But be careful.”
As I pondered Enid jumping from the eighties to the nineties, I suddenly had an idea. “I’ve been researching Comstock in the 1880s, but maybe I should skip forward. He scored a major political victory for his cause in 1893, at the World’s Fair in Chicago. My guess is our Comstockers had something to do with it. I think if I could edit that moment it might turn the tide.” I didn’t mention that there was another advantage to being in the nineteenth century. Record-keeping at the Flin Flon Machine was terrible until the 1920s. It would be easy to sneak from 1893 up to 1992 again, where I had already left a paper trail proving I was observing the music of temporal locals. With a little subterfuge, I still had a chance to prevent the next murder. Or maybe the next after that.
Anita nodded and made a note. “Our current grant will cover several more trips back to the late nineteenth, so that’s a good idea. Anyone else?”
“I’m researching Ordovician ocean sediments and the origin of the Machine at Raqmu,” C.L. piped up. “Can this grant cover my expenses in Jordan? Raqmu is right by the airport there.”
I was dubious until C.L. explained a few odd properties of the Machine at Raqmu. It was the first described in recorded history, found by ancient Nabataeans in a city they carved into the sandstone walls of a valley in Jordan. C.L. had read some papers about new evidence showing the Raqmu Machine could affect the other Machines’ behavior. If a group of crazy extremists wanted to lock the timeline, they would probably focus their sabotage efforts on Raqmu.
“All right, C.L., why don’t you work up a protocol that will allow us to check for people tinkering with the Machine.” Anita made another note.
The meeting wound down after that, and we all promised to report back when we had new information.
I gave Enid a long hug before she left. “I’m so sorry.”
“I miss her, even though I don’t know her.” Her face reminded me of shattered safety glass, utterly broken but still somehow holding its shape.
“You’re going to fix this. I know you will.”
Enid cocked her head, and ran a hand over the freshly shaved hairs on the back of her neck. “I know you will too. Safe travels.” That simple pleasantry suddenly felt like a powerful talisman.
“Safe travels,” I replied.
My anxiety hardened into a new sense of purpose. After years of work in the 1880s, I’d changed nothing. But now, at last, I had hope.
Excerpted from The Future of Another Timeline, copyright © 2019 by Annalee Newitz.