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 get caught up with chapters one, two, three, and four.
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?
Chicago, Illinois (1893 C.E.)
In fall, I headed back to the late nineteenth century. Once the official paperwork was filed, all I had to do was grab an overnight bag and get to Flin Flon. We couldn’t send more than the clothes on our backs through the Machine with us, so it didn’t make sense for me to bring anything more. C.L. was fond of saying that theoretically we should be able to send anything through a wormhole. The only thing stopping us was an interface setting that geoscientists hadn’t figured out how to control with our tappers.
I texted goodbye to the Daughters, and left myself a few notes in my office about some outstanding questions from students that I wanted to answer in my next lecture. Even if I traveled for a few years, I’d be back at work next week.
One of the many things that drives me nuts about The Geologists, that BBC show about time travelers, is how the characters are always obsessing about period costumes. It seems like half the plots revolve around getting the right style of straw bonnet, or freaking out because somebody is wearing stockings that are made of non-period nylon. First of all, nobody pays that much attention to the small details of your underwear. And second, there are many ways to dress in every era. If I were to look like a proper nineteenth century lady from The Geologists, I’d blow my mission. I wasn’t trying to mingle with ladies. I needed New Women, those outrageous revolutionaries, college students, and artists who smoked cigarettes, read The Alarm, and supported Senator Tubman. To meet them, I wore a bicycling look of knickerbockers, thick knee socks, and a high-necked cotton blouse. A warm jacket fit snugly over the top, and I completed the outfit by tucking my long brown hair into a wool maritime cap. It was basically riot grrl style for the Gilded Age. And you’d be hard-pressed to find it in most history books, let alone a TV series.
When I arrived in early April 1893, I had ice cold mud in my leather shoes. There was no bank of networked computers. An engineer was feeding coal to a single, steam-powered tapper connected to a massive turbine that dominated the mining camp’s wood plank warehouse. The room smelled like smoke and machine oil.
I stood up unsteadily, taking in the rough walls, patched here and there with epoxy. Miners had stumbled on the Flin Flon Time Machine only fifteen years before, making it the most recently discovered of the five known Machines. That meant travelers who used Flin Flon to go back further than 1878 found themselves alone on a rocky outcropping next to a beautiful lake. No shack, no tappers, nothing. With training, a person could use stones to pound the Machine interface and return to their present. But I’d learned on tappers, so I generally used the Flin Flon machine only to explore the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To go further, I took the Machines at Raqmu and Attirampakkam, discovered thousands of years ago. Using those, you could go back pretty far and find bureaucrats from long-dead regimes to greet you—along with people trained in the art of tapping by hand. I’d never used the other two Machines, at the Super Pit in Kalgoorlie, Australia, and Timbuktu in Mali. Unless there was a compelling reason to be in those places, grants typically covered booking in only the closest Machines.
Light came in from the doorway, and I could see my greeting committee now. A white man with an elaborately waxed moustache and dusty overcoat doffed his hat as he entered. He spoke with a faint Quebecois accent.
“When are you coming from?”
I showed him my tattoo. “A few decades upstream: 2022.”
“Welcome. How was the day up there?”
“I came in fall, so it was pretty chilly.”
He grinned and rubbed his chapped hands together. “Bet you’re glad to be here in the heat of spring! What’s your business?”
“I’m a geoscientist from California, and I’m here to see the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.” That got him talking about the wonders that awaited me. Everybody in this period knew about the first American World’s Fair, known in the 1890s as the Columbian Exposition because it fell on the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas. We sat on a log outside, where it felt barely warmer than the month I’d left, and I tried vainly to scoop all the mud out of my shoes. I’d never come through wet before—the water vanished with the wormhole. I thought about the Comstockers’ plan to sabotage the Machines and hoped this wasn’t a sign that they were succeeding.
Wax Moustache interrupted my thoughts. “So you’ll be needing a canoe down to Winnipeg to catch the train, I expect.”
“Do you know anyone going down?”
“Old Seacake is heading out pretty soon. He’s been trapping all the way up and I think he’s full up on beaver and mink. Good man. Mushkego tribe. He’ll get you there in a couple weeks, as long as you keep him away from whisky—you know how his kind like the fire water.” He winked, like he expected me to laugh at his racist joke. I frowned and pulled my shoes back on.
“Do you know where Seacake is?” I knew a very limited amount of Cree, but I thought maybe the name “Seacake” was an extreme mispronunciation of a Cree word for skunk. Then again, maybe it was slang for hardtack, the long-lasting sailors’ crackers that white settlers brought to the bush.
Seacake turned out to be a middle-aged guy with two thick braids and battered Levi’s jeans that would have been the envy of millennial hipsters up in ’22. He was packing his campsite into tidy canvas sacks.
“Hey, Seacake, I got a traveler who needs to get to Winnipeg.”
Seacake ignored Wax Moustache and looked at my knickerbockers. “You an anarchist?”
I laughed. “No. I’m a geoscientist. And I like rational clothes.”
He pondered for a minute and then nodded. “Okay. I’ll give you a ride if you strike camp and do the cooking.”
That seemed like a good bargain, so we shook on it. Luckily, Seacake was heading out soon, and I was able to avoid Wax Moustache for the rest of my stay at camp.
Most of the trip, Seacake rowed in silence. I burrowed into the furs and thought about my plan for an edit that would thwart the Comstockers. Ice clotted thickly at the edges of the water, and the canoe seemed to nose its way through sheets of melting sugar. It had been three days of dried meat and hardtack, and I watched the water hungrily.
“You’re a traveler, huh?” Seacake cocked his head at me.
“From the future?”
“I couldn’t be from the past. We can only travel backward from our present, not forward.”
Seacake snorted. “Really? That’s what you think? White people really don’t know anything about time travel.”
I sat up straighter. We knew the Cree used the Flin Flon Machine before white settlers claimed it, but very little information about their work survived. “Do you know people who can go forward in time?”
“I’m not going to tell you.” Seacake’s tone was halfway between playful and annoyed. Was he messing with me?
“Well, nobody in my time thinks it can be done. It’s one of the Machine’s hard limits.”
Seacake shrugged. “Maybe the problem is that you think it’s a machine, and not an animal made of rock and water.”
Despite the completely deadpan tone, I was pretty sure he was being sarcastic. I sighed. “So you’re really not going to tell me whether you can go to the future.”
“Figure it out yourself.”
“I’m sure somebody already has, somewhere in the timeline.”
“Exactly.” Seacake finally cracked a grin. “Are there any good songs when you’re from?”
I nodded, thinking about Grape Ape.
“Can you sing one?”
I was on a fur trapper’s canoe somewhere in northern Manitoba, hundreds of kilometers and decades from the world I knew. It seemed like the right time to sing a Grape Ape classic: “Racist Cops Suck My Plastic Dick.” For the next two minutes, the trees shivered with Glorious Garcia’s words, delivered in my off-key shriek.
Seacake seemed to like it.
When we finally got to Winnipeg, he gave me a couple of beaver pelts to sell for train tickets and a room with access to a bath. I thanked him profusely and he shrugged. “You can pay me back when you come through again.”
The CP Line cut through tiny towns and thawing prairie farms, the varnished wood of its seats transducing our bumpy passage over the tracks into repeated jolts that I felt as one long ache in my lower back. In St. Paul, I spent a nickel on some cheese and hard candy before transferring to a U.S. line that would take me to Chicago via New York City.
Traveling through time is easy, but getting to and from the damn Machine will kill you. Sometimes literally, if you meet a microbe our inoculations don’t cover. Thankfully I arrived at Union Station in downtown Chicago merely broke and hungry. The cold air brought gusts off Lake Michigan that smelled like rotting flesh and sewage. It wasn’t like I smelled much better. I’d been living on train station food for days, sleeping in a cramped berth, and my neck was a burning knot of pain. But I’d arrived at last, and the prospect of starting work had me excited. Straightening my jacket, I walked south along the putrid water to reach the geology department at the University of Chicago. Most big-city universities had a small fund set aside for traveler loans, and I needed a few dollars to tide me over until I had a job.
Before I begged for university funds, though, I’d be passing through the Columbian Exposition. Opening day was months away, but the Expo was already packed with venues looking to hire. Ideally, I’d pick up a job before I ever got to the geology department. Travelers were trained to be participant observers, so I was supposed to earn a livelihood when I went downstream. At least the nineteenth century had an economic system I understood.
I knew I was getting close when I saw domes and spires in the distance. I’d studied faded photographs of the Expo, but still got the familiar traveler’s rush when I saw it in person, rickety and real. Construction crews had spent the past year converting a swampy lakeside mess called Jackson Park into a maze of sprawling European-style buildings, artificial lagoons, and angel-encrusted facades. Today, in its half-finished state, the place looked like an insane fairy tale. Tourist brochures would call this area the White City, both for its color and for the way it embodied a spotless, shining Victorian futurism. I paused for a minute, marveling at the sheer size of the display halls, swarming with workers. Delivery wagons clattered past, piled with everything from live ostriches to bonsai trees. But this wasn’t where I wanted to land a job. I was looking for the Midway Plaisance, the long, dirty tongue of parkland that stuck out of the White City’s prettied-up face and deep into the city of Chicago itself. The Expo attractions there would inspire carnival sideshows for at least a century to come.
I took a right turn and there it was: the Midway, its landscape rough and scarred by carriage wheels. I avoided puddles of liquefied manure and passed between exhibits that looked like villages jumbled together from various locations around the world: Java, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, Austria, Samoa, Egypt. Many of the concessions were still skeletal. Ahead of me loomed the monumental “Cairo Street” exhibit, a walled-in world of restaurants, shops, theaters, and bazaars that merged to form a colonial hallucination of various cities in the Maghreb. Men with hammers climbed all over Cairo Street’s hulking “Luksor Temple.” Others were erecting two plinths covered in hieroglyphs for full pseudo-authenticity.
This segment of the Midway was almost entirely blocked to traffic by a pile of enormous steel spokes, arranged like lumber in the mud-clogged street. They would eventually converge to form the world’s first Ferris wheel, a modern mega-machine designed to dwarf the minarets of North African architecture below. Dozens of workers were ripping up ground to lay the steam pipes that would power the thing. Across from Cairo Street were the Moorish Palace and Persian Theater, both little more than wooden foundations with a few rickety beams hinting at the large crowds they would hold in a few weeks. I couldn’t believe this place would soon become an American obsession.
I poked my head around the corner from the Luksor and found a side street with one building whose slightly faded awnings gave it a lived-in appearance. Topped by gilded domes and covered in rows of bright tiles, it had a plain marquee that read “ALGERIAN THEATER.” In curly script below, the place promised to deliver “Moorish Kabils—Algerian Negre & Oulades Nai’le Dances.” Another sign helpfully elucidated: “Performance Every Hour! Dancing Girls!” A fountain stood outside, beautifully painted, full of murky rainwater. It sounded like people were drumming inside, but I couldn’t be sure.
I was turning to leave when two women materialized in the shadows of the entrance. One was tall and pale, rolling a cigarette with tobacco she’d pulled from a tiny pouch hidden in her skirts. The other was short, her jet-black hair wound into braids around her brown face. She wore a man’s wool overcoat to cover her costume, visible only as a few metallic tassels against her thick black stockings.
The tall one called out to me. “You here for the audition?”
“No, I was just passing by.” I tried to sound casual. Like somebody who wasn’t desperate for a job.
The one in the wool coat gave me an appraising look and grinned. “I like your knickerbockers. Want a smoke?”
“I’m Aseel, and this is Sophronia.”
“Everybody calls me Soph.”
“I’m Tess. You guys dancers?”
“I’m a dancer. My stage name is Lady Asenath. But I’m also a translator. And pretty much everything else, including manager for the fellow who brought this troupe over from Africa.” Aseel made a grand gesture, like she was showing off a palace full of treasures.
Soph handed me a tightly rolled cigarette. “I’m a journalist,” she said. “Did you know this is the first time these traditional dances have been seen in America? It’s incredible. I’m working on a story about it.”
I took a drag and tried not to choke. Nineteenth-century tobacco is intense. “What else do you write about?”
“Mostly I write pamphlets about how I’m fucking an angel.”
I’ve heard a lot of weird things in my twenty-five years of travel, so it was easy to keep my tone conversational. “What kind of angel?”
“I don’t mean a real angel. The goddess wouldn’t take physical form like that. But I teach women about family health and the marriage bed, and it helps if they can tell their husbands that they’re reading spiritualist tracts.”
Aseel broke in. “I ordered one of her newsletters when I was having woman problems back in Arizona. When I came to Chicago, the first thing I did was call on her.” The two women looked at each other and giggled.
“You look like a New Woman.” Soph raised her eyebrows. “What do you do?”
“Actually, I’m looking for work.”
“But you don’t dance?” Aseel was dubious. “Can you do mending? We are desperate for a seamstress.”
“Sure I can.”
Soph did a little pirouette. “Wonderful! Delightful! It’s as if the goddess herself brought you to us!”
I grinned and nodded. This was an incredible stroke of luck. I’d landed a job in the exact place where Comstock would try to crush women’s rights in a few months.
Aseel reminded me of every female boss I’ve ever had, no matter where I traveled. She wasn’t technically in charge—that honor went to Sol Bloom, a young event promoter from San Francisco who managed the entire Midway Plaisance. But everyone knew Aseel was the person with all the answers. Though she had no job title, she did everything at the Algerian Theater, from accounting and hiring to project management and choreography. And of course, she was paid less than the guys following her directions on how to build the stage.
Also like every female boss I’ve ever had, this situation annoyed the shit out of her. My second day on the job, I arrived to find Aseel chewing out the cast and crew. “What are you oafs doing? We open on May 1! The sets aren’t finished, the roof is leaking, and you’re all dancing like donkeys!” Then she yelled at everybody in Arabic for a while before whirling on me. “And how about the costumes? Salina’s jacket is in tatters!” I hung my head along with the rest of the team. We couldn’t all be as competent as the great Lady Asenath, the star of our show and scourge of lazy proto-carnies.
Still, I passed the afternoon pleasantly enough, adding modest chemises to the traditional, midriff-baring vests that some of the dancers wore with their skirts and tassels. These additions had to be transparent enough to show the women’s stomach muscles, but opaque enough to prevent nice midwestern white people from freaking out. Next there were endless tiny beads and sparkly coins to replace on jackets, pantaloons, scarves, and shoes. As I licked another piece of thread and poked it through the needle’s eye, Aseel sat down next to me and groaned.
“Long day. And we have a performance in a couple of hours.”
I was surprised. “I thought the show started in May.”
“Why do you think the costumes are already so ripped up and broken? I’ve been putting on a preview show for the past few weeks. Two bits a head. We’ve made plenty of dough and the Midway isn’t even open yet.” There was a note of pride in her voice.
I started attaching coins to a bodice, carefully placing them so they overlapped like kissing buttons. “How long have you been dancing with this troupe?”
She sorted through the dish of coins and handed me a few of the right size. “Oh, I didn’t come over with them. I joined up last year, when Sol put a notice in the paper for a manager who spoke Arabic.”
“He hired you as the manager?”
“Well, technically he hired me as a dancer. But then he figured out that I can speak English and Arabic, and that I know how to run a show. My parents are from Egypt, and they owned a saloon back in Arizona. I learned African dances to entertain the guests, but my dad taught me how to run the business too.” She looked down, suddenly sad. “He was a good man. Always treated the girls as well as the boys.”
“Why did you come to Chicago?”
“After he died, my mother remarried and… well, perhaps you can guess. Not all men are equally good.”
“No, they aren’t.” I carefully placed another coin and thought about my past, waiting like an unpopped blister in the future. “Leaving is probably better than the alternative.”
“The alternative… I considered that.” Aseel gave me an appraising look, and I wondered if we were both talking about murder. Then she winked and smiled. “But now I’m here, with my own show.”
Sol poked his head into the dressing room, a fat cigar in his mouth. “I think you mean my show. It’s almost preview time, Aseel.”
She stood, face smoothed into professionalism again. “We’re ready.”
He clapped her on the shoulder with a grin. “Of course you are. Of course.” Then he slipped her an extra two dollars. That was, as I learned, a typical Sol move—he took credit for the show, but he also made sure we knew that he appreciated the real force behind its success. His small gestures made a big difference. Nobody in the show ever questioned that Aseel was their boss.
I was making $1.50 per day, which was actually pretty good for a seamstress in this period. The political gains from suffrage were helping a new generation of ladies move out of their fathers’ houses and into a few limited areas of work: garment-making, nursing, teaching, landscaping, and the arts. Newly founded colleges like UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago opened their doors to a fully coed student body.
Like many other unmarried women of the day, I rented a room in a boardinghouse—a three-story brick building on Dearborn Street that Soph recommended. Her consulting parlors were right down the hall, and that meant a steady trickle of visitors came past my door seeking spiritual guidance.
That night, I lay back on the hard cot in my room, read the Tribune, and eavesdropped on two well-dressed ladies gossiping about how Soph could cure anyone’s broken heart with a prayer. An hour later, three women arrived from jobs in the garment district, their faces drawn and fingers raw. One was crying. “God have mercy on me, but I cannot have this child,” she whispered, voice quavering. “He is not a good man. After what he did to me—” Her sobs came again, a seizure of melancholy. Another shushed her. “Soph can help. We will pray. She knows the secrets of angels.” The third snorted. “You mean she knows a certain midwife.”
As the afternoons blurred together, each one warmer than the last, I witnessed a nearly forgotten facet of feminine culture in the Gilded Age. These were Spiritualists, devotees of a mystical blend of paganism, occult beliefs, and Christianity that was embraced mostly by American women. Soph was one of Chicago’s best-known practitioners.
Watching women demur to men in public and suffer the consequences of their abuse in private, it was hard to believe we were at a transition point in history when women’s growing power could unsettle a long-established social order. But change is never linear or obvious. Often progress only becomes detectable when it inspires a desperate backlash. Which is why I was almost certain to find the Comstockers here and now, laying the groundwork for their malicious edit.
Excerpted from The Future of Another Timeline, copyright © 2019 by Annalee Newitz.