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 four below, or get caught up with chapters one, two, and three.
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?
Irvine, Alta California (1992 C.E.)
For over a week, we’d been referring to it as “the thing that happened.” We acted normal, following our usual routine, taking advantage of open campus at lunch. Kids could leave school grounds at noon, as long as they came back for fifth period. But it was Friday, so fuck fifth period. Lizzy, Heather, Soojin, and I went to the mall down the street from Irvine High, stopping in at the pizza place, not even bothering to pretend we weren’t ditching class.
“Wanna go to Peer Records?” Soojin didn’t need to ask. We always went there after pizza, following an unblemished sidewalk that divided the parking lot from a monumental Ralph’s supermarket. A nondescript storefront in a jumbled row of shops, Peer Records was our gateway to the world beyond aerobics studios and lawn furniture. Long and narrow, its walls were plastered with posters, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. Rows of record bins turned the tiny space into a maze. When I bent down to check out the overflow boxes on the floor, hunting first for an Alley Cats album, then X-Ray Spex, I blocked the entire aisle.
Heather kicked me lightly with her taped-up boot. “Get out of the way, girlie. I want to check out what they have by The Selecter.”
“I love their song ‘Murder.’” I bit my tongue way too late. Now Soojin and Lizzy were giving me the bug eye. I hadn’t meant it that way. But maybe I had.
“Have you guys heard anything about…” Heather trailed off awkwardly.
“Maybe we should take a walk.” Lizzy tilted her head at the door.
We wandered in silence until we found one of those ornamental lozenges of grass between housing tracts that the Irvine Company called “greenbelt.” We were sitting next to a large intersection, but nobody glanced at us. Just a group of invisible girls on a Friday afternoon.
Lizzy broke the silence. “Do you think anybody found him yet?”
“They must have.” Heather’s cheeks flushed a deep red, her eyes full of outrage and tears.
“Did your parents ask you anything?” I was talking to the group, but looked at Lizzy.
“They thought it was very nice that I volunteered to clean the whole car after somebody, uh, barfed in the back. Luckily all that shit hosed right off.”
None of us really understood Lizzy’s relationship with her parents. They were almost never around, and her brother was already off at college. When I went to her place for sleepovers, her parents would say hi then go back to work on whatever it was they did. Something to do with engineering. They seemed benignly neglectful, which was definitely better than my parents, who demanded to know everything I did in minute detail. Heather’s parents were similarly watchful. Soojin had three loud sisters, so she was able to evade parental surveillance most of the time. None of our parents had said anything about what we did that night. At least, not yet.
“I guess we’ll see something on the news when they find him, right?” Heather sounded almost hopeful.
“Maybe,” Soojin cautioned. “But the police might want to keep it secret if they’re looking for suspects.”
“People will notice that he’s not at school. They’ll have to say something.” As I spoke, I realized how wrong I was. Last year, a guy in eleventh grade had killed himself and the school administration never said anything official about it at all. We only knew about it through rumors from other kids.
Soojin added another barrette to her hair, which did nothing to hold it in place. “I dunno, Beth. We might never know what happened to Scott.”
“I know what happened to him.” Lizzy narrowed her eyes. “He was a fucking asshole who tried to kill Heather and we fucking killed him first.”
We all sat frozen, shocked. Was that really what had happened? The more I thought about it, the more I realized Lizzy was right. It made me feel dizzy and powerful, like a superhero that nobody had a name for yet.
“Yeah, fuck that guy.” Heather ripped a hunk of grass out of the ground, its roots still clotted with soil. Then she threw it as hard as she could into the street. It landed with a sound that nobody heard.
The news finally got out a month later. There was a short blurb in The Orange County Register about a high school boy murdered by “transients, probably from the Los Angeles area.” And then some group of parents, or maybe teachers, decided to turn Scott’s death into a lesson. There was a school assembly in the gym. A cop came to show us a movie about the horrors of “weed and speed.” The school counselor waved around some tattered Just Say No to Drugs paraphernalia left over from the eighties. Then the principal talked about the great tragedy of a promising young man’s life cut short, and how drug use is a cry for help, and we should all report our friends if they were using drugs. Lizzy nudged me and rolled her eyes.
I could see some of Scott’s friends off in the corner of the bleachers. They were uncharacteristically silent, their backs stiff. I only knew one of them by name—Mark—because a few months ago he tried to carve the word “PUNK” into his narrow, pimply chest with a razor blade during open lunch. We’d driven to the park to feed some ducks, but somehow the trip turned into the boys impressing each other. Mark’s stunt was a sad imitation of something he’d seen in a movie about Sid Vicious, but Scott thought it was awesome. He kept talking about the dirtiness of the razor, and the amazingness of Mark’s stalwart efforts, until Lizzy told him to shut up or she wouldn’t give either of them a ride back to school.
Flashes of that long-ago conversation kept interrupting today’s anti-drug lecture. As we filed out of the gym and back to third period, I thought about the principal praising Scott’s ability to absorb dozens of knife blows in the spirit of punk rock. It made way more sense than what the principal had actually said, about how Scott had been such a promising boy. Our teachers really thought we’d believe that the cruel authors of Scott’s tragedy—anonymous except for those male pronouns—had forced him into some kind of drug orgy, then killed him when he tried to resist.
Lizzy and I walked home from school along the railroad tracks that cut between two mirror-image housing tracts sealed behind cinder-block sound barriers. When we were kids, we used to leave pennies on these same tracks and wait for the train, expecting the coins to shoot upward in an arc of fire, or be flattened beyond all recognition. Maybe the cars would be derailed. No matter how many times we did it, we never found the pennies again. The train continued dragging its freight, oblivious to our violent intentions.
“Want a cigarette?” Lizzy pulled a Marlboro hard pack out of her battered denim jacket. Our friend worked at the local gas station, and sold us cigarettes sometimes when he felt generous. We sat on the tracks and shared one, passing it back and forth until the nicotine made me dizzy.
“Do you feel weird? Different? Like we’re evil now or something?” I looked over at Lizzy.
She cocked her head, the mesh of her earrings catching the light. Her platinum hair was like a crushed dandelion today, soaped and dried into stiff, crazy angles. “No. I feel exactly the same. I mean, maybe that’s weird.”
“I don’t know.” I could see the roofs of my housing tract peeking over the wall fifty yards from us. Each one was exactly the same, their shingles kept in perfect order by the Irvine Company. “Everything is fucking weird.” I rested my head on my knees and thought about how there was only one more year until I’d be in college.
“Let’s do something tonight. Want to go to the movies?”
Of course I did. It was our default plan every Friday. “Let’s go to my house and we can call Heather and Soojin.”
Lizzy nodded and crushed the cigarette butt under a rock. We scrambled over the wall, wedging our boots into the crumbling mortar between bricks, and landed on some greenbelt next to the community pool. A few kids were splashing around with their mothers, who gave us dirty looks. Punk girls being disobedient. At least they noticed.
My house formed one end of a rectangular block of condominiums built with shared walls, like the suburban architectural equivalent of conjoined quintuplets. Each facade faced the quiet street with the same lopsided face, three windows and a door, painted in matching shades of 1970s tan. But the corner houses, like mine, had one extra window on the side wall that faced the street. My father called it “the deluxe model,” but he didn’t seem to enjoy it much. We had a strict rule in the house that the curtains always had to be drawn, unless it was raining, in which case they had to be open to let in extra light.
Actually, we had a lot of complicated rules, and they changed depending on my father’s mood. It kept me vigilant. Coming home, I always felt like I was donning futuristic sensor gear for detecting minute shifts in ground elevation. My lasers swept the area, bouncing off every surface, light receptors primed to detect any change. I unlocked the front door. Had any temblors perturbed the landscape? No. My parents weren’t home.
We went upstairs to my room and I popped a tape into the boom box. I had already memorized most of the new Million Eyes EP, though it still felt kind of new in my head. Lizzy dialed Heather and Soojin to make movie plans while the band yowled: “REBEL GIRL YOU ARE THE QUEEN OF MY WORLD!”
I cranked it up, but not loud enough that I wouldn’t hear the garage door opener announcing my father’s arrival in his classic VW with the fancy engine upgrade. Sometimes he picked my mom up after she taught her last class, but sometimes he headed straight home from the auto repair shop he’d inherited from my grandfather. When I heard a grinding squeal coming from outside, I turned the volume down and shut my bedroom door. I could feel my father’s rage seeping through the floor from downstairs. It usually took him a few hours to simmer down after work, especially at the end of the week.
Outside the sun was drowning in a Technicolor bruise of pollution, but inside we ate spaghetti and my mom made small talk.
“How are your parents, Lizzy?” She was using her high school teacher voice on us, which meant she was paying attention. Usually at dinner she read the paper and ignored whatever lecture my father was delivering.
“They’re good, Ms. Cohen. They just got back from a long trip.”
“Oh, how nice! Where did they go?”
Lizzy twirled her spaghetti deliberately. “Someplace in Jordan? It’s for work.”
My father was completely silent until Lizzy got up to use the bathroom.
“Why are you wearing shoes in the house?” He was whisper-raging. A couple of months ago, he’d gotten really focused on shoes. I’d come out of my bedroom with bare feet, and he’d ordered me never to set foot inside the house without shoes. Since then, I’d never taken them off unless I was getting in the shower or bed. Apparently, there’d been a reversal. I braced myself, sensors on alert.
“We got the carpets cleaned last week. Why would you ever think that you should wear shoes in the house?” His voice had a poisonous edge that meant he was working his way toward a total meltdown. I stared at the ground, took my shoes off, and carried them to the foyer. Instant obedience and no questions were the best way to calm him down. I could intercept Lizzy on her way out of the bathroom and tell her to take hers off too. One of the many reasons I loved Lizzy was that she never cared when I asked her to do odd things, like suddenly take her shoes off in the middle of dinner. She accepted that we were taking our shoes off now, and then there would be more spaghetti.
“What are you two doing tonight?” My mother continued the small talk when we returned in our socks.
“We’re seeing a movie at the Balboa Theater with Heather and Soojin.”
“There won’t be any boys with you, will there?”
My father made a disgusted noise and nudged my mother’s elbow. “Delia, you do realize that if she were your son, you wouldn’t worry about girls being around. This is the 1990s. Everybody should be treated equally. So Beth is allowed to go out with boys.”
I couldn’t help but smile at my father, and he smiled back. It was one of those days when his rule-changing mania flipped back around to reward me. Sometimes he decided that we were allies. I wished I knew why, but in my seventeen years on Earth I had yet to discover a predictable pattern.
Excerpted from The Future of Another Timeline, copyright © 2019 by Annalee Newitz.