The Time-Traveller 1 “I am older than god,” Ander told the Avian ambassador. She frowned. “A month ago you said you were an atheist.” Ander thought about that. She was right. “Yes, well,” he said lamely, averting her eyes. Somewhere behind him, softly ringing, came a diner’s bell-like laughter. He picked at his bread roll. When he met her eyes again, though, she wasn’t angry. (He breathed. It was hard trying to keep the lies straight in his head.) A nanobot cloud drifted to their table, compiling into a thin automaton which took their orders. After it had gone the ambassador tapped her claws on the table, waiting; but he kept quiet until she broke the silence: “I’ll bite. How old are you?” “Older than god.” “That means nothing to me. Didn’t I mention?” she went on, after seeing his confusion. “I’m Grounded.” “Oh.” A horrible thought occurred to him. “But the sun-gifts I gave you,” Ander said slowly; then he winced. “And the symbiote-sleeves.” She raised her arms. The sentient metal ended just before her wrist-feathers. “I don’t mind the Kluex designs. Really,” she added, and reached across the table to rest a hand on his. “It’s fine.” So was she. Her touch was warm. He drank to steady himself and was surprised to find Floran brandy in his cup; a 39 vintage, he identified, smoky but sweet. “You agreed to dinner, though. You’re okay with Christmas?” “Neo-Kristas, you mean.” Her eyes widened. “Wow. You are ancient.” A thoughtful pause. “That, or mentally deficient.” “Just answer the question.” She stared at him. “I agreed to dinner because I like you.” Before Ander could fully recover automatons had arrived with their food and were positioning the plates on the table just so, all economical movements and gleaming chrome, after which the machines shattered into silver fragments and ascended. They talked some more. Comfortable enough with each other now that what silences dotted their conversation were, if not quite intimate, still companionable. Political maneuvering and realignments on her end (“It’s been crazy over at the embassy,” she explained, suddenly furious, “and we’re running out of time. The Carusi government’s given into Revisionist demands, allowing them to set up hundreds of weather centres. It won’t be long before they’re allowed to resume resource extraction and corporate terraforming, too. Entire ecosystems, gone. Irreparable damage”); and from him, at her insistence, insights into his trans-historical work: “Time-dilation. Our generation ships can reach and maintain sub-light velocities, thanks in part to Apex engineering.” Ander hesitated. “Actually, I’m not too sure how it works, if I’m being honest.” (“Honest,” she repeated, as if the word was some newly discovered species, before waving her fork at him to continue.) “We collect samples, collate data. Compare one period of space-time against another. Test social theories until their powers of explanation no longer hold up in the intervening centuries; then we remake the theories until they can explain new events.” Blatant memorization. He laughed, trying again: “We’re the universe’s great consciousness. Appearing in the nick of time to remind civilizations of everything’s that happened and everything that will come to pass. Of course,” he added, taking a bite of his food, “we’re not really time-travelling. We barely age in our ships. It’s the rest of the universe that gets old, decades in the span of months. But it’s a good enough term, I guess. Futurist. Time-thief. Chrononaut. Proleptic. Prophet–historian.” He punctuated each title with a raised finger. Then he stopped chewing. Grimaced. “This tastes disgusting. Why the hell would anyone eat it?” She glanced at his barely touched poptop stir-fry. “Because it’s expensive.” For dessert they shared a smile; then by mutual agreement sampled the Hylotl aquatic berries, and were presented with a bowl of the plump fruit dyed traditional neo-Kristas colours, cherry red and bright green. (She speared the fruit on a claw and would raise it one at a time to her small golden beak where her ropy tongue darted out to snatch them. After a while she turned her head—but he told her not to. That there was no reason to hide. The Avian studied him for a long time. Nodded once, quickly, saying, “Thank you.”) They left the restaurant, its warmth and Floran woodland harmonies spilling out after them. Carus’ sun bled into the horizon, streaking the sky in lines of fire. He surprised them both by linking their arms and together they made their way through the city’s snow-blanketed streets. Evening shadows kept them company. At the urban square a large crowd of carolers had gathered around the massive crystal tree. Its angular arms clamoured for space, abstract ornaments hanging from each tine. Weaving luminous threads between branches were tame light-virorbs. Looking over, Ander took in her teal plumage, the gold of her skin, the wide-eyed joy. Realized how much he was falling for her. Accepted the futility of feeling anything at all. Later, tangled in bed sheets and each other’s arms, her words were soft, careful: “You don’t have to go.” “We’re at that stage now, are we?” he joked, pretending not to take her meaning; yet she refused to participate, so he replied, “I can’t stay on Carus.” “But you could.” She pressed against him. “I’d like that.” “Then why don’t you come with me?” Silence. “That’s not possible,” she said after a while. Stiffly, he decided. “My work. It’s too important.” “And mine isn’t?” “That’s not what I meant.” She pulled away. He was certain she was looking at him and was grateful for the darkness. “The offer stands.” Ander closed his eyes. It always came to this. “I leave in three days.” He eased onto his back— —and went perfectly still when the ambassador pressed her claws against his chest. (He pushed aside panic and reviewed: Avians, slight but supple; a warrior race the eons in their hundreds had done nothing to temper. Conclusion: there could be no escape.) He opened his eyes. There was no pain. Instead the hand lifted and she told him in a cold voice to get dressed and leave. Streets suffocating under silent snowfall. He took the long way, an ellipse leading him into city hinterlands where colossal sno-pohok retreated from self-assembling Revisionist weather centres. Skin-suit emitting heat under his long coat, Ander watched the intelligent machinery exhale slightly altered versions of the atmosphere they siphoned. Then he turned his back on the white fields and walked until the Spheniscidae Hotel came into view hours later; crossed the foyer with its muted holiday cheer and empty front desk; took the lift to his room where he kicked a path through boxes littering the floor and undressed before falling into bed, projections of the fight running through his head. Each scenario ended with her rejection, so he gave up and let sleep steal him away; and every following night, until Ander woke one morning to frosted windows and pale light. Departure. He logged in to send her a request—I’d like to see you one more time—and busied himself packing up journals and footage, the interview notes and tentative hypotheses, humming tunelessly along with post-neo-Kristas broadcast jingles. It took two trips to move it all down to the generation ship at the docks, and he endured a quick shower before allowing himself to sit down in front of the holo-screen where her reply was waiting. I’ll be in meetings all day with Carusi government. Tomorrow, I’ll be moderating debates between Revisionist lobbyists and environmental awareness groups. The rest of the week will be given over to further appointments regarding the terraforming crisis. My work is important. I won’t waste my time on unnecessary distractions. Ander read it once more. Then waited for the ache to fade. 2 Full dark had fallen when the time-traveller left the hotel, shoulders hunched, brow furrowed. He stepped on the conjoined shadow of lovers kissing in lamplight. Navigated uneven buildings in their grids, maintenance crews removing decorations, rusting bridges and pools of thin ice, winding lanes claimed by fruzzbites whose tusks gleamed in moonlight. All that the city remembered of this star-bound man were his footprints embedded in trampled snow. 3 Somehow, he’d done it. Ander stared in disbelief at the last page of Scolera’s On the Impossibility of Prescience. The three hundred page monstrosity still didn’t make much sense, though. (He recalled in hideous clarity one of the more vexing passages: Let A represent the origin timeline, B the immediate successor, A-B the sublimation of the two and C the superimposed limitations of so-called prescience specification. That had been on page five and he’d been wholly unprepared for Scolera’s assault.) Without hesitating Ander ejected the data-chip and launched it across the ship’s deck, not bothering to see where it landed. He rewarded himself with Floran rum, drinking straight from the bottle. Its potency choked him but on balance he much preferred drowning than the two weeks of numbing academic prose. (A stubbornly sober section of his mind suggested he was imbibing to better forget about her; in response, he drank some more.) It was during this bout of happiness, of course, that he discovered he’d lost some rather important notes. Even more alarming: the missing data-chips had been replaced by blank copies. A concentrated effort to take stock over the next half hour revealed most of his work on Carus’ industrialization and its effects on global labour union formation hadn’t made it to the ship. Along with other material, he realized with growing dismay, without which he might as well not have bothered to visit the frigid little planet. He took a long swallow. Loaded another chip—and stared, confused, when her face came up in holographic display. “By now you’ll understand what I did, but not why," she said. "I think that if I’d pressed, you would have stayed here. With me. But I needed you to leave. So you could come back and witness.” Some subtle emotion shifted her face. “Time-dilation, you see.” A pause. “The changes should be noticeable when you return.” She smiled. For a moment the Avian fierceness receded and Ander saw how much it hurt her to have done this. “I never did give you a gift at dinner last night.” So softly spoken. “Come back to me, Ander Drucas. Come back and we’ll celebrate neo-Kristas as we should have.” The recording ended, freezing her in midair. He did the calculations. It had been only two weeks for him, but the nature of time-dilated travel, its curse, meant over forty years had passed for her. She would be seventy-six now. He made the return trip in nine days, even though he knew he’d be too late. The ship slowed on arrival, entering real-time incrementally, the web of stars and space and silence settling in the void outside. The time-traveller looked on the ice planet that had once been Carus. He studied the rivers of slow-moving lava branding fresh wounds into rock plains which reared up at him like rows of teeth. The dead world no longer spun. Scanners located a container among floating scorched debris. It was brought into the airlock and his hope turned to ashes in his mouth when he saw how small it was. She hadn’t escaped. Inside the metal coffin were his missing data-chips, although he couldn’t remember why they had been so important. There were other items. Stacks of translucent machinery. Non-disclosure agreements. Research papers. News stories of the tragedy. Sometime later, he found her ghost in a data-chip and brought it to life. She was nearly unrecognizable. Dressed in native garb, the glittering vambraces and headdress, a black spear clutched feebly in right hand. A nest of lines scored her face, the etchings of time. Her feathers were either grey or missing. “The corporation calls it an accident,” she began slowly. “Revisionist machines gone haywire. Too intensive terraforming. Other Carusi accepted this—before learning docks worldwide were unusable. Communications, too. So-called side-effects of the ongoing emergency. Then the Revisionists disappeared.” A bitter laugh. “We are all alone now.” “What happened—is still happening—is not an accident.” Her gaze hardened. Then she looked lost. Frail. “But not like this. Not on this scale.” He was beginning to understand. Carus, so distant it was isolated from the rest of the Commonwealth. Global annihilation in the guise of corporate business. Undetectable at first. Inescapable at last. The implications staggered. She coughed. Struggled for breath. “I used to hope you’d return and see what was being done. In the early stages. Evidence. Stop it somehow, because of who you represent. But I’m glad you didn’t, Ander. You’ll live. You will tell our story to the future. You will make them remember.” She wept. “Even if I can’t remember your face.” The Avian ambassador looked at something off-screen. Made a sound in her throat. “It’ll be neo-Kristas in a couple of days.” She stopped. “Christmas, I mean. I never was good at giving gifts. Can you forgive me?” “Always,” he said quietly, and spoke the softness of her name into the quiet: Marissa.