Excerpted from The Future of Another Timeline copyright © 2019 by Annalee Newitz.
Irvine, Alta California (1992 C. E.)
Drums beat in the distance like an amplified pulse. People streamed over the dirt road, leather boots laced to their knees, eyes ringed in kohl, ears and lips studded with precious metals. Some gathered in an open square below the steep path to the amphitheater, making a bonfire out of objects stolen from their enemies. The smoke reeked of something ancient and horrific; materials far older than humanity were burning. A rusty sunset painted everyone in blood, and shrieks around the flames mixed with faraway chanting.
It could have been Rome under Nero. It could have been Samarkand when the Sogdians fled. It could have been Ataturk’s new Istanbul, or a feast day in Chaco Canyon. The technologies were industrial, Neolithic, and medieval. The screams were geochronologically neutral.
I paused, smelling the toxins, watching a woman with jet-black lips and blue hair pretend to eat a spider. One of her companions laughed. “Michelle, you are so gross! This isn’t an Ozzy concert!” They paused at the ticket booths to flip off the Vice Fighters, a gang of conservative protesters waving signs covered in Bible quotes. Some of them were burning CDs in a garbage can, and the stench of melting plastic formed a noxious bubble around their demonstration.
The Machine had not delivered me to an ancient war, nor to an anti-imperialist celebration. I was at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater in 1992, deep in the heart of Orange County, Alta California. Soon I’d be seeing one of the greatest punk bands of the decade. But I wasn’t here for history tourism. Somewhere in this rowdy concert crowd, a dangerous conspiracy was unfolding. I needed to find out who was behind it. If these bastards succeeded, they would destroy time travel, locking us into one version of history forever.
I bought a lawn seat and raced up the winding pedestrian walkway to the seating area, lurid with stadium lights. The theater was relatively small and open to the sky, with a steep grade of loge seats above the prized orchestra section next to the stage. The lawn formed a green semicircle above it all, pocked with mud puddles and beer cans. Still, even up here, the air vibrated with anticipation for the headliner. Spotlights sent a cluster of beams racing around the stage.
Grape Ape’s lead singer Glorious Garcia strutted out alone, sequins on her tattered skirt shimmering in the glare. She let out a furious howl. “HOLA, BITCHES! IF ANYONE CALLED YOU A SLUT TODAY, SAY IT WITH ME! SLUT SLUT SLUT!” All around me, women joined the chant. They wore battered combat boots, shredded jeans, and wrecked dresses. They had tattoos and black nail polish and looked like warrior queens from another planet. Tangled hair flashed in every possible artificial color. “YOU SLUTS ARE BEAUTIFUL!” Glorious fisted the air and aimed her mic at the crowd, still chanting, “SLUT SLUT SLUT!” Back when I went to this concert for the first time, I was an angry sixteen-year-old with too many piercings for suburbia, wearing a military jacket over a 1950s dress.
Now I was forty-seven on the books, fifty-five with travel time.
My eyes flicked to the things I never would have seen back then. Everyone looked so scrubbed and affluent. Our rebel fashions were cobbled together from the expensive stuff we’d seen in some New York Times story about grunge. But what really jolted me was the way people occupied themselves as they waited for the music to start. Nobody was texting or taking selfies. And without phones, people didn’t know what to do with their eyes. I didn’t either. I watched a guy in a Dead Kennedys shirt urging a hip flask on a woman who was already so drunk she could barely stand in her platform creepers. She stumbled against him, swigging, and he gave a thumbs-up sign to his pal. The punk scene, once my inspiration, now looked like a bunch of future bankers and tech executives learning how to harass women.
The rest of the band charged on stage, Maricela Hernandez’s guitar squealing over the clatter of drums and bass fuzz. Cigarette smoke and sound merged into a throbbing haze around us. From my distant perch, Glorious was a tiny figure with the biggest voice in the world.
“THIS IS A SONG ABOUT THE GIRLS FROM MEXICO WHO ARE PICKING FRUIT IN YOUR IRVINE COMPANY FARMS! LET’S RIP DOWN THE FUCKING BORDER NET AND STOP THE KILLING!”
That took me back. In 1991, a huge group of refugees fleeing Mexico had drowned in the Gulf of California, just as they’d almost reached the safety of U.S. soil in Baja. They’d gotten tangled in offshore nets the border patrol set up to stop illegal immigrants.
The music tore through me until it merged with muscle and bone. I had a job to do, but I couldn’t move. Grape Ape was the only thing here that hadn’t been warped by my disillusionment. They still had the power to replace my cynicism with a feeling that careened between hope and outrage. Strobe lights churned the darkness, and the audience frenzy reached beyond fandom, struggling toward something else. Something revolutionary.
Then I felt a broad hand on my upper arm, squeezing a little too hard, and a large male body pressed against my back. I tried to elbow him and wriggle away, but the still-invisible stranger held me in place. He leaned down to whisper-yell in my ear, blotting out the music. “I know you must have many daughters at your age, and you are worried about their future.” His voice was smooth, and his warm breath smelled like lavender and mint. With his free hand, he started massaging my neck as he continued to grip my arm. “That’s why you come to places like this. To find a better way for women. We want that too. Maybe you’ll look past your prejudice against men and read our zine.”
At last he released me and I whirled to face him. He pulled his zine from a rumpled Kinko’s bag. Grainy Xeroxed images of women in chains adorned the cover, and letters torn from magazines spelled out the title: COLLEGE IS A LIE. Flipping through the pages of ten-point Courier font and smeary cartoons, I scanned a few typical punk rants against suburban brainwashing: college teaches conformity, turns you into a corporate drone, destroys true art, blah blah blah. But there was a weird strand of gender politics in it. Over and over, the anonymous authors preached that college “destroys feminine freedoms inherited from our ancestors on the plains of Africa” and “is anti-uterus.” I scanned a paragraph:
Women are naturally empathic, and college tortures them with artificial rationality. Millions of years of evolution have led men to thrive in the toolmaking worlds of science and politics, and women to become queens of emotional expression and the nurturing arts. College denies this biological reality, which is why so many women feel bad about themselves. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Fuck college! It’s time for liberation!
The entire zine was about why women should drop out of college. I looked sharply at the man, a nasty retort on my tongue, but his face stole my words. It couldn’t be. I would never forget those features, so perfectly formed it was as if he’d been grown in a vat full of men’s magazines. I’d last seen him in 1880, at a lecture on suppressing vice in New York City. He was one of the young men clustered around Anthony Comstock, lapping up the famous moral crusader’s invective about the evils of birth control and abortion. Later, at the protest, he’d given me a beautiful smile before punching me in the chest. Gasping for air, I’d dismissed him as one of the many YMCA boys under Comstock’s spell. Now it appeared he was something more—a traveler. I feigned interest in the zine and shot another glance at him. The man might be a few years younger than he’d been in 1880, so maybe this was his first time meeting me. His blond hair was currently spiked in an embarrassing imitation of Billy Idol.
He took my silence as an opening, and leaned closer again, touching my shoulder. “I can tell you don’t quite understand, but you’re intrigued. My friends and I are here to help if you need us.” He gestured to a few other men, all wearing black armbands around their biceps, handing out zines to other women in the crowd. Despite the distraction of Grape Ape onstage, they’d managed to get quite a few people to take one. Fear filled my guts with ice. This guy and his buddies were planting ideas, playing a long game. Trying to eliminate choices for these women in the future. It was a textbook example of a forbidden traveler’s art: editing the timeline.
I was looking for anti-travel activists, people who wanted to shut down the Machines. It was hardly the kind of political stance a traveler would take. But everything about this guy was off. So I followed at a safe distance, watching him whisper in women’s ears, pointing them away from one of their few pathways to power. Eventually, at the very edge of the loge section, the black armband men came together. I stood nearby and bummed a cigarette from an old crusty punk, catching snatches of the traveler’s conversation.
“I think we converted a few today. Good work.” That was the Billy Idol guy, the one I’d seen over a century ago in Comstock’s orbit.
“Do you think we’ll be able to make the edit before time stops?” another man asked.
“We may need to go back a century.”
“How long until we have our rights back? This is taking too long. I think we should hit the Machines now.”
The crowd began to roar, burying their voices.
A terrifying hypothesis coalesced in my mind. There’s only one reason why a traveler might want to lock the timeline, and that’s if he planned to make a final, lasting edit that could not be undone. I looked at the zine again. It was exactly the kind of propaganda that Comstockers would use to revert the secret edits made by people like me and my colleagues in the Daughters of Harriet.
The Daughters often debated whether we were working directly against another group. Even when it seemed like we made significant progress in the past, the present remained stubbornly unchanged. But we had no evidence of oppositional reverts, other than our constant frustration. It was like we were fighting with ghosts.
Now the ghosts had become men.
The Comstocker was delivering a final rallying speech. He gestured at the loge section. “This is what happens when men become victims. But once we take control of the Machine, nobody will remember this world.”
At that moment he looked over and saw me listening. His face went ugly and asymmetrical: he’d recognized me, and realized I wasn’t a temporal local.
“Get her! She’s one of them!” He pointed. Suddenly, four men with black armbands and pale skin had eyes on me.
I took off running, edging my way past the security guards, aiming for the mosh pit. Grape Ape roared through a song I couldn’t hear over the thump of blood in my ears. My momentum was swallowed by a swell of bodies, diverting our chase into a chaotic circle of flailing limbs. Women who smelled like cloves and disintegrating nylon rammed into us. The Billy Idol guy was so close that I could see the acid-wash streaks in his jeans when he grabbed me by the collar. “Get your hands off me!” I shouted. “I have friends at the Chronology Academy, and I guarantee they won’t like the way you’re trying to change the timeline with your shitty Comstocker zine. They’ll send you back to your home time and you’ll never travel again.” Onstage, Maricela shredded a solo. I glared and hoped he believed me, because there was no guarantee the Chronology Academy would agree that he’d violated regulations. Or that they wouldn’t catch me doing the same thing. But the threat worked. He released me with a sneer.
“You misandrist bitch!” He was close enough that I could smell his strangely sweet breath again. “You and your sisters are a genetic dead end. Next time I see you downstream, I’ll make sure you’re punished for spreading lewdness and vice.” Then he shoved me into a young woman who bounced away and smashed back into him with a maniacal cackle. Screeching and spinning with her arms out, she battered the Comstocker over and over until he fought his way out of the mosh pit and disappeared into the crowd. Good riddance—at least for now. I moved with the circle, bumped and bruised and safe inside its performative violence. Bursts of light from the stage illuminated the Comstocker rounding up his black armband pals and heading for the exit. Hopefully I’d scared them a little, though it had been stupid to reveal myself like that.
At least I’d confirmed Berenice’s report at the last Daughters of Harriet meeting. She’d traveled to early 1992 in Los Angeles, gathering data at ground zero for the anti-travel movement. One of her sources said he’d met some extremists hanging around in the alternative music scene. I suggested this concert would be a good place to look for them. This particular Grape Ape show had been famously controversial, called out by the Vice Fighters as a gateway to hell and by Rolling Stone as the most anticipated show of spring. Everyone would be here, especially if they considered themselves radicals.
Of course, I neglected to tell the Daughters that my younger self had been at the concert too. They never would have agreed to send me if I’d mentioned that little detail. Nobody knew what happened to travelers who met their younger selves; it was both illegal and so morally offensive that most scholars avoided the topic. The only detailed description came from a medieval manuscript about the life of an old, impoverished traveler who took the Machine back thirty years to advise himself to save money. When he returned to his present, the traveler found that his house had become a beautiful mansion. But then his bones began to break themselves, and he was plagued by attacks from a cloud of tiny demons that flew around his head unceasingly.
I wasn’t worried about demonic fantasies. They were a staple of medieval manuscripts, along with women giving birth to monsters. I was thinking about evidence-based threats to the timeline, our only timeline, whose natural stability emerged from perpetual revision.
The woman who’d harried the Comstocker earlier was spinning back toward me, and my stomach dropped. I’d been too rattled to recognize her before. Now I could clearly recognize Heather, one of my friends from high school. She barked her crazy laugh again, and I could see the Wonder Woman Returns T-shirt clearly under the lacy bodice of her dress. We’d all been obsessed with the Tim Burton Wonder Woman movies in high school, with their badass heroine in fishnets and leather.
I looked around in a panic. Was I here too? I thought I’d been in the loge section during the concert, which was why I’d avoided that area. But my recollections of tonight were murky. Maybe that was the problem. My younger self seemed so distant that I’d figured— stupidly—it would be easy to avoid her. I kept searching for my lost self until the spotlights poured illumination across the steeply angled seats and I caught a brief glimpse of her—me—with my two best friends at the time. Soojin was on my right, frowning with concentration as she studied Maricela’s fingering technique. And there, on my left, was the person who had been my best friend since we were little kids. The two of us were scream-singing along with Glorious Garcia, fists in the air. Seeing us from a distance, I realized how our closeness had even manifested in dressing like each other. We wore the same trashed vintage dresses and combat boots. People were always mistaking us for sisters back then, which wasn’t far from the truth. We were angry riot grrl clones, except for the hair.
A pasty white boy grabbed Heather roughly and she stumbled toward him, a red lipstick smile bright in her brown face. The boy’s right ear was crusted with safety pins and dried blood. Piercing injury. Very punk rock.
What was his name? A jagged shard of imagery was lodged in my mind, painful and opaque. Oh fuck. The slurry of psychological muck that usually buried my high school memories was gone, leaving behind a crisp picture of what that kid’s face would look like in three hours, when it was covered in blood. I stared at him as he twitched to the music, angry and alive. I had to intervene. If I didn’t, something horrific was going to happen. Many horrific things. And they would all lead, in the end, to a broken and beloved body, robbed of the consciousness that hurled it off a bridge.
Now that I was here, maybe I could undo that whole narrative and make everything right. I muscled my way out of the orchestra section, away from Heather’s laugh and my own age-reversed face, back down the path to the parking lot. Passing the merch table, I felt a painful twist of nostalgia as I read Grape Ape’s once-familiar slogans: MAKE BAJA MEXICAN AGAIN! SUCK MY PLASTIC DICK! SLUTS OF THE WORLD UNITE! At last I reached my rental car. I’d made it out before the encore, which should give me enough time to make an edit. As I turned the key in the ignition, recklessness oozed into me. Had I really come back because of Berenice’s report, or had I been hoping subconsciously for something like this to happen? Some excuse to intervene in my own past?
I wished I could remember my favorite shortcut from thirty-eight years ago, through Irvine’s palimpsest of malls, churches, and walled subdivisions. I’d have to brave traffic. Merging on the 405 freeway, I slowed down and considered what the hell I was doing. The Daughters of Harriet were waiting for me back in 2022, and I needed to tell them about the Comstockers. I should be headed back to the Machine. But this was an emergency. I had to save that boy’s life.
Annalee Newitz is an American journalist, editor, and author of fiction and nonfiction. They are the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship from MIT, and have written for Popular Science, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post. They founded the science fiction website io9 and served as Editor-in-Chief from 2008–2015, and then became Editor-in-Chief at Gizmodo and Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica. Their bookScatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction was nominated for the LA Times Book Prize in science. Their first novel, Autonomous, won a Lambda award.