Tripping Through Time
By Rich Larson
It’s the Great Fire of London and I’m serving biofarmed eel canapés. Smells and sounds don’t get through the bubble, or I guess they call it the chronofield, but I can see plenty: thatched roofs going up like match heads, blue-and-orange flames licking and crunching on wood, smoke tunneling up into the hazy sky, people running for their lives. It’s a trip.
I shouldn’t be watching, though. I gotta sling these canapés and then get more champagne flutes out the chiller. Clay, who is now head server, stuck her whole bony neck out to get me this job. I spot her across the way, offering appies to three musty old men posted up at the shimmering edge of the chronofield. She’s autosmiling and hide-the-pain laughing at whatever junk they are saying to her.
Usually her hair is a rust-colored buzzcut, but today she’s wigged up, all straight and glossy and long, because it’s one of those gigs. They also got us in period costume, which is not falling-apart sweatpants but instead these stiff, soot-smeared dresses that actually, me to you, look somewhat good in an aggressively retrobomb way.
I waltz over to the riverbank where our employer, Mrs. Silverwright, is holding court like some kind of primeval sea goddess. She’s wearing this unbelievable half-holo gown that looks like a perpetually crashing wave, all foamy and whatnot, and her bass-clipped hair is billowing in perfect tendrils around her face, and her cheekbones are so, so deadly. Sometimes I just stare at them.
“That’s the issue, isn’t it,” she says, plucking a canapé off my tray. “If we hosted at, say, the building of the pyramids? It could be an entire day spent watching one slab of rock get hauled up a sand dune. The signing of the Declaration? Over in minutes.”
Her admirers nod and tutter.
“I’m afraid destruction simply schedules better than creation.” Mrs. Silverwright gestures over her shoulder, where the river’s reflecting the orange flames in a ripply dance. “And it’s not as if we’re the only ones drawn to the spectacle. People came from miles around to watch London burn.”
I can see another boatload of people rowing through the dirty water, smeared with actual soot, eyes bright and panicky. It’s shitty for them, but like Mrs. Silverwright told us while we were setting up, these people have been dead forever. And we can’t leave the chronofield anyways.
An old woman does the classic forearm grab, clawing me up with her nails. “Excuse me,” she says. “Is this eel or elver?”
In my head I’m like, it’s whatever you want it to be, baby.
In real life I’m like, “This is eel, ma’am. Imported from a biofarm in Andalusia, served on crostini with a balsamic reduction and sesame seed topping.”
She hucks it right in the Thames.
But all in all, it’s not a bad gig. Me and Clay keep circulating, and every so often we pass like two satellites in orbit and beam each other information about who’s getting too drunk, or too handsy, or just keeps saying the stupidest shit. People are really into watching London burn down, so they’re easy to please. Honestly, the hardest part was probably the pre-job testing.
Rich folks already got all these custom telomeres and whatnot, which makes it easier to get modified for the chronofield. Us caterers do not, and apparently some people have a real rough time inside that pretty shimmery bubble. Like, the girl before me just started bleeding out her nose and ears one night, gushing all over the white linen tablecloths and babbling about how sorry she was.
I’ve got the right genetics for the mod—as proven by a shitload of tests in this little bunker slash office where I had to wear a big circuitry-swatched apron—but I still feel woozy when we zap back to reality, which is a big antiseptic-white tent. Me and Clay keep the smiles stapled on while all the guests flit away to their limos or quaddies. Then we help our chef-slash-serving captain and her bot load up all their shit, and then we finally hit the detox.
The magnetics make my skin grow goosebumps and tug my hair all over the place. Clay’s gets lifted straight up for a second, and I can see the edge of her lace front. The scan blinks green.
“That’s some good money,” she says, stepping out of the booth. “And it’s rad, right? Seeing the past. I mean, you can’t touch it, but it’s rad.”
As soon as I get out of the detox booth, I grab my phone from the storage locker and see she was right: the money is good as hell. I pump my fist a little. “Hey,” I say. “Thanks for getting me this, Clay. This is big necessary right now.”
“Hey,” she says. “I know.” She pauses. “Mrs. Silverwright likes you, too. We could get you on regular. Sisterhood of the time-travelling pants type shit.”
I blink. “She likes things?”
“Micro-expressions,” Clay says. “Gotta be watchful.”
We bump elbows, mask up, and part ways: Clay to her ride, me to my metro. There’s another virus going around, so every second seat in the tube has one of those 3-D printed spike pads glued to it to keep people from sitting too close together. But of course that just means more people are standing crammed up in each other’s mouths. I try to face the corner the whole ride.
The apartment block’s in quarantine mode when I get there. The door sprouts me off a little swab to run around my nostrils, then I sit tight on the stoop while it does its thing. It’s a warm muggy night, warmer than London on fire, which seems backwards to me. The bubble must be climate-controlled.
Finally, the door chimes me through and I scurry up the steps. Me and my mom are on the third floor—one of those half-suites with an epoxy wall installed to double the number of units. Sometimes at night we hear our neighbors on the other side moving around. Mom used to joke with me about them being ghosts, or maybe creepy mirror versions of us with black button eyes. She got that from a book she read me as a kid.
The door to our apartment has another quarantine warning blinking on it, like maybe three flights of stairs was long enough to forget. I shoulder it open and head straight for the sink.
“Hey, is that my little time traveller?” my mom calls from the next room. Her voice is a little scratchier than usual. “Is that my little quantum jumping bean?”
“Woman, what does that even mean?” I call back.
I don’t come out of the bathroom until I’m fully scrubbed and my outer clothes are in the laundry. Mom doesn’t get flare-ups too often anymore, but she’s on immunomodulators all the time—colitis—so I’ve been washing my shit good for years already. The coconut-scented disinfectant gel is pretty much my signature fragrance.
Mom is at the kitchen table, peering at her work tablet. When she looks up, I can tell she’s relieved to see me in one piece and not, like, turned into a fetus or something. “Hey, hon.”
“Queen of England says hi,” I tell her.
“Unbelievable, the shit they use it for,” she says, sounding grudgingly impressed more than angry. “Parties! Just sitting there watching a city burn down.”
“Can’t really do nothing else,” I say. “We’re all stuck in the chronofield, right?” And I think, they dead anyways, but I don’t say it, because it’s the kind of thing that’ll get her actually angry. I’m tired and achy and I want to just chill and enjoy the fact I got paid. “You test today?” I ask.
“Just now,” she says, nodding at the kit magnetized to the fridge. “Clean as a whistle.”
I wrap both my arms around her and give her a big squeezing hug. We smell like the same soap, but she has her mom smell going on, too. There’s this safe warm feeling when you’re with someone you love and you’re both clean, especially after a couple weeks doing distance and isolation, and you know you can hug them. Me to you, I think it might be the best feeling in the whole fucking world.
Next party I work is a week later, and also like six hundred years ago. It’s some famous battle: big muddy hillside, people clanking around in armor, arrows flying everywhere. The rain sleeting down doesn’t get through the bubble, but some of the guests are going around with fashionable black umbrellas anyways. I’m a little distracted tonight and Clay notices; she intercepts me right as I run out of deconstructed patatas bravas.
“You good?” she asks.
“Your mom good?”
I don’t want to burden Clay with this shit, not when she’s already burdened with her own shit, but she has those big soulful eyes you just want to confess stuff to. “Tested red yesterday morning,” I say. “Not IDed yet. I keep thinking I must have brought something in, you know?” I whirl my finger. “Like, maybe even something from here?”
“No way,” she says. “Detox, remember? And you wash hard, girl. You wash better than my brother, and he’s a nurse.”
“Thanks, Clay.” I pause. “Your parents okay?”
“Holed up and healthy, yeah,” she says. “Just jealous I’m out here breaking physics while they stuck inside playing canasta.”
She spots someone’s glass running low and darts over before it hits critical empty. I circle back to the kitchenette to restock my tray. I’m just starting to feel better when a soldier eats shit right in front of me, staggering out of the mist and collapsing just outside the chronofield. He’s so full of arrows it should be funny, he’s got six, no, seven, one’s broken off in his belly.
But his blood is bright red, leaking down into the mud, and the shimmer distorts his face but for a second I swear he’s staring right at me. I know he’s been dead for hundreds of years already. He doesn’t look dead, though. He looks desperate. It’s not funny.
A drunk man shows up, one of the guests who was placing bets earlier on who was going to get trampled by their own horse. He has a wine stain on his crisp white sleeve. “Oh, my God, that’s horrible,” he says. “Hold this. I want a souvenir.”
He hands me his glass, sloshing half of it into the dirt. I’m too shook to do anything but take it. The functional part of my brain figures he wants to take a snap of himself with the dying guy in the background, but instead he slides this metallic prong out of his sleeve and pushes it against the chronofield.
A poison-yellow warning holo pops up. He shunts it aside, keeps pushing, and suddenly a small hexagonal chunk solidifies in the shimmery surface of the bubble. The node falls away. The guest gives a grunt of satisfaction, eyes fixed on the arrow sticking out of the dying guy’s back.
“Heath? What are you doing, man?” His slightly more sober buds have spotted us. “What’s he doing?”
Heath snaps a glove on, wriggles his fingers, and shoves his arm through the chronofield. Everybody shouts and jumps and rushes forward at the same time, everybody except me, because I’m still standing there holding Heath’s wine glass and watching the soldier bleed out. The shouting cuts off. Heath is staring at his arm, which is intact on the other side of the bubble, with that drunk bleary kind of self-amusement. Someone does a nervous laugh.
Then Heath starts to scream. His lanky arm is whipping around like a popped balloon, and somehow it’s shrinking like one too, collapsing in on itself, bones crunching bones and skin slurping skin. He staggers back, and only a stump comes with him. He’s screaming, I’m screaming, everyone’s screaming. The little medidrone me and Clay helped load up comes whirling over to see what’s going on. It clamps itself to the blood-spraying end of Heath’s not-arm.
One of his idiot friends is shaking me like, why didn’t you stop him, like, you overserved him, you overserved him! Which is so fucking absurd I will laugh if my throat ever gets unstuck.
Mrs. Silverwright sweeps in and detaches him, shoves him away. “Are you okay?” she asks. It takes me a second to get she’s asking me.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yes. Ma’am.”
We both look down at Heath, who is still writhing around on the dirt. The thing that he used to open the hole, the metallic prong, is lying beside him.
“What a fucking clown,” Mrs. Silverwright says. “One in every family, I suppose.” She gives me a pat on the arm, then turns to her clustered guests. “The party’s ending early today, darlings.”
When I get back to reality and back to my phone, there’s a message from my mom telling me she got her bug IDed and it’s a SARS variant. I don’t show it to Clay. She’s still buzzing about what happened with the chronofield, how that dumbshit deserved to lose more than one limb. I nod and nod and nod, and even laugh, and then we go our separate ways.
The whole metro ride I got this dread in my belly, and guilt for the dread, which feels bad too. I walk slow from my stop, sauntering down the empty street. Halfway home a drone flits up, yammering about curfew, but I got an employment blit from Mrs. Silverwright so I’m in the clear. A couple minutes after that, I’m waiting on the stoop for the apartment door to read my swab, and the dread’s getting worse and worse.
The scan blinks green and the door opens, which also opens my lungs, at least a little. I head down the hall. Our door’s got a new pictogram now—a notification that says, infected individual in isolation. I shoulder it open and beeline for the bathroom.
“Well, well, I have been blessed with a visitor from the distant past.” My mom’s scratchy cheery voice is coming from the portable speaker on the kitchen table—she’s already gone full iso in her room. “How was Agincourt?”
I think about the man full of arrows, and Heath the rich drunk clown reaching for him, and Heath’s arm turning into flesh-spaghetti and disappearing.
“Rainy,” I say. “You okay? Still flaring?”
She doesn’t answer, and that makes me scrub harder, like I can squeeze a reply out of my slippery hands. “I’m okay, hon,” she finally says. “But I’m on Waitlist for a hospital bed.”
I get the trapdoor stomach thing, where it feels like all your guts just dropped out the bottom of you. I pull my phone out of the disinfectant tray and pull up Waitlist. Friends and family notifications: a great-uncle here, an old classmate there, and sitting buried in the 932 spot, my mom.
“Bad timing,” she says. “They just got a big surge.”
My mom had me late and she turned sixty last year. That, plus colitis and other IBDs getting reclassified as comorbidities a while back, means she’s low priority.
“Company can’t bump you up?” I ask.
“They barely cover my immunos and liver check-ups. They’re not gonna up and find me a bed.” She bites back a cough, and that spikes all the little hairs on the back of my neck.
“How you breathing?” I ask. “What’s your peak flow?”
“If I link you all my numbers, you’re just going to worry. You can’t change the numbers, hon.” She pauses. “I’m reading the complete works of Tennessee Williams. How about you make something to eat, get cozy in bed…”
I go to the kitchen and fix up some food and clean everything on automatic. Spray, wipe, spray, wipe. Mom got a drone delivery while I was working. A big box of my favorite knock-off Nesquik cereal is on top of the fridge. Same taste, fewer atrocities—I said that when I was a kid and Mom never let me forget it.
I don’t go to my room, though. Instead, I go sit with my back to my mom’s door, so I can hear her shifting around in her room, so I can almost feel it. We do up the camlink so we can see each other. Her liver-spotted hands are holding an old battered book of plays. She’s halfway smiling. She can tell I’m not in my bed, but I think she gets it.
Me to you: Tennessee Williams is not my thing. I kind of doze off, shoulder blades slowly sliding down the door. But I do hear that one part I always remember, from the very start of The Glass Menagerie, where their eyes fail them, or they fail their eyes, and they get their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery braille of a failing economy. That shit has been happening for centuries.
Mom works in contact tracking, for a company called Hund. They mostly take care of her meds—colitis is not cheap—but they don’t have provisions for virus season. While she reads, I split off a new tab and start searching around Hund’s policy site, which is basically all fucking nonsense.
But when I move up to their conglomerate’s policy site, I spot something co-signed by Aline Silverwright.
I get my shot during the Toba catastrophe. Mrs. Silverwright breaks away from her flock and goes over to the edge of the chronofield, checking something on her embedded wrist screen. She looks as regal and beautiful as ever, with her heartbeat and other organ functions transposed to the fabric of her dress in an elegant anatomical collage.
Outside the bubble, a bunch of people in extremely retrobomb attire—animal skins and bark type shit—are staring off into the distance at a growing pillar of smoke. Earlier I heard somebody say that they’re not Homo sapiens, they’re some other kind of hominid, but they look human to me.
Anyways, I’m glad me and Clay are wearing chamsuits instead of period costume. It’s a weird feeling, only being able to see your gloved hands, everything else just a blur. But you get to pretend you’re a ninja and it’s not like the guests treat you much different.
“Mrs. Silverwright?” I say, from a distance so I don’t startle her by accident. We’re out of earshot of the other guests.
“Hello, darling,” she says. “What is it?”
“My mom works for one of your companies,” I say.
She gives a tight smile. “Small world.”
There’s no smooth chill way to say it, and I have to say it now, before she gets distracted. Before I lose my nerve. Before I start thinking about how she might freak and dump my contract, dump Clay’s contract too, just for good measure.
“She’s sick with the new bug and she’s high risk,” I say. “She needs a bed, or a medidrone, and her company won’t pay out, so she’s stuck on Waitlist, and I was hoping you could help.”
Mrs. Silverwright fixes her apologetic eyes just to the left of where my head actually is. “I’m sorry to hear that, darling, but now’s really not the time,” she says. “The magma’s about to start. Make sure everyone’s got a glass. Boris will probably try to do a toast of some sort.”
She walks off, and I realize I been wearing a chamsuit my whole fucking life. I go get the champagne. The guests are congregating at the edge of the bubble, most of them sitting on little modular stools we helped the bot unload. On the other side, the people who are hominids are agitated, some muttering to each other, some just watching, stock still, eyes wide, as the sky gets dark.
Everyone’s got a glass. I back away to the kitchenette, because I don’t want to watch a volcanic eruption kill people who are already dead. I’m hoping Clay will circle back, too, and we’ll get a slice of time to talk, and I’ll tell her what happened.
“This shit is so barbaric.”
Not Clay’s voice. I look up and see this girl in a swirling lime green holojacket holding a vape to her pouty lips. She’s got the same cheekbones as Mrs. Silverwright.
“They could have viewed it from anywhere, but they pick a village, so they can see people being fucking terrified,” the girl says. “What’s next? The Tulsa massacre?”
I just stare at her.
“I’m only here for my dissertation, but I don’t know if it’s even worth it, like, morally?” She turns her head and blows smoke. The volcano’s still billowing ash into the sky behind her. “If the chronofield failed, they’d deserve it. Honestly.”
“Huh,” I say, deploying the all-time safest, most vanilla word on instinct.
“I feel so bad for you, having to watch this kind of shit,” the girl says. “I’m sorry. Just wanted to say that. I should get back to the jackals now.”
She thrusts out her pale moisturized elbow, pretending like she’s a chill normal person and half her bloodstream is not composed of artificial leukos. I bump her back. It hurts so bad. She smiles, like she did me some kind of favor, then stumbles back to the party.
The volcano blows and I can see Mrs. Silverwright’s heartbeat racing on her dress. I remember how she looked like a goddess to me the first time I saw her.
My mom is playing music when I get home, streaming some electrotango, the kind of stuff she used to dance to back when social dancing was a thing. Sometimes I hear the floor creak a certain way and I know she’s gliding around in there. Sometimes, when we’re both clean, she’ll get me to be her follow, and I’m pretty damn bad at it but it’s okay.
I go to the bathroom and scrub. She’ll be pissed if I tell her what I tried with Mrs. Silverwright, because it was risking my job and whatnot, but at the same time I want to tell her.
I want to tell her how Mrs. Silverwright apologized to the space beside my head, and how her heart started racing when she saw the volcano blow, and how the hominids, the people, were so scared but nobody really gave a fuck—not the girl with the holojacket and not me, either.
It was a bad, bad trip. I dry my coconut-smelling hands on a fresh towel, then pick up my phone, wiping the last of the disinfectant off its screen. I send Mom a little door-knock pictogram.
No read, no reply.
For a second I imagine it’s because she’s dancing, sweeping up and down the narrow space between her bed and her closet, but she showed me her lung function yesterday and I know she’s not. I go to her door and knock for real.
“Mom? I’m back to the future, or whatever.” My voice is all high and tight and I can’t fix it. “You okay?”
I get these dreams, sometimes, where I’m climbing a tree or a ladder and I fall, and there’s this gut-lurch, and this horrible knowledge that you can’t take it back. You can’t redo the rung, or the branch. Your hand slipped and you’re done.
I open my mom’s door, wrapping my hand in my sleeve on automatic, and I start falling. She is smaller than I’ve ever seen her, curled up on her bed in the middle of this big damp wet spot. Her skin has gone gray. Her phone is lying on the floor where she must’ve dropped it, back cracked so the battery is peeking out.
She is holding her breath, the same way I am, like it’s some kind of contest, and I think maybe if I just give up and exhale so will she. I breathe. Her ribcage does not move a millimeter. I am falling, falling, falling.
New strain. More aggressive. Can’t touch her. Can’t touch her. I call the emergency line and then I do it anyway, stumbling over to grip both her hands. They’re cold. I start rubbing them, like that might help, the same way she did for me when I was little and I would come in from the snow and she would say, icicle fingers! and rub them warm again.
The AI on the emergency line is asking me to scan and link her vitals. She’s dead, though. And I get this horrible thought: she was dead anyways. She was outside the bubble.
The next party is in Venice, back before it was underwater, but it doesn’t even matter because I’m not even there. It feels like I’m a drone hovering along behind myself, watching me talk to the chef, watching me refill trays, watching me smile. Clay would know something’s wrong. She would know it in an instant. But she’s home isoing with the same bug everyone’s getting now, same SARS variant.
So I float around the party, slinging feta zucchini gratin, and nobody can tell the ice truck finally came for my mom yesterday. Some of the guests are wearing little masquerade masks. A few have these black goggle-eyed ones with hooked beaks. Heath the clown is back, showing off a flexy new artificial arm, all sleek and white and Apple. The girl with the vape is here again, too, and she doesn’t look at me.
Outside the bubble, the cobblestones are crowded with partiers, packed shoulder to shoulder how they never are now. Men and women in costumes are marching through the street. People are waving lanterns, spilling wine, playing bulgy-looking guitars. They look so happy.
“Poor dumb fuckers,” Heath says, slurring even though I haven’t served him any alcohol. “Getting their ticks all over each other.”
This is the last big carnival before the Bubonic Plague hits. I heard Mrs. Silverwright talking about it with the sponsor earlier, like she was talking about cloudy, chance of showers. These happy people are going to be digging mass graves soon. This is the last night before the course of European history is altered forever, and it’s a chance for solemn reflection on the ephemerality of something, something, something.
I watch myself get another bottle of Chardonnay out of the chiller. I’m wearing a checkered serving apron that looks dumb but has a pocket. In the pocket, I have this pointed metal thing that keeps poking at me.
Mrs. Silverwright is wearing a dress with photosensitive stalks that swivel around to follow the light, and it makes her look like she’s made of snakes. She smiles at me when I serve the wine. Heath is pretending to put on a puppet show with his artificial arm, wrapping his real one around the girl with the vape, who giggles. I can hear my mom’s voice reading that Williams line, fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery braille, and I understand it now.
Some people will never feel anything until their hands get pushed down onto it. I wander to the edge of the chronofield and take the sharp thing out of my apron. It’s a short metallic prong inlaid with circuitry and loaded, from what I can tell, with the other kind of virus. Me to you, I don’t remember why I snatched it off the ground at Agincourt. Maybe I wanted a souvenir.
Maybe I wanted this. I push it against the shimmery wall of the chronofield. Wave after wave of warning holos pop up and I slap them all away. Heath the clown had it set to target one specific node. I simplified things: I got it set to target all of them. A beautiful Italian woman in a beautiful filigreed mask dances past me, so close we’re almost the same person.
Little hexagons start to appear, not just where I’m pushing, but everywhere, all across the bubble, sprouting like metal flowers. A tremor goes through the whole chronofield. I hear panicky shouts. I keep pushing, but I look back over my shoulder. Mrs. Silverwright is running at me. The girl with the vape is shrieking at me.
“I didn’t mean it!” she howls. “I didn’t mean it!”
And that’s true, too. They don’t mean it. But they still have to–
© 2020, Rich Larson