Escape Pod 622: Anna and Marisol in Time and Space

Anna and Marisol in Time and Space

By Tim Pratt

The big day came, and Anna was tempted to tie up Marisol and stash her in the closet just to be safe, but instead she put on her makeup and her pale blue gown (it was prettier than she remembered) and called, “Marisol! Are you making a whole new dress from scratch in there? We gotta go!” just like last time.

Marisol emerged from the bedroom, sliding a dangly earring into place, and even with everything on her mind, Anna stopped and stared and took her partner in: those pale green eyes so striking against the darkness of her skin, her long black hair, her dress patterned with tiny flowers and ruffled at the hem, made elegant both by Marisol’s craftsmanship and because she looked good in everything, basically. How many hours had Anna spent staring at photographs of that face? “Oh my god, let me get a picture.”

Marisol rolled her eyes. “I thought you were worried about being late?”

“It’s not my fault you look this good. I didn’t account for a hotness delay.” Marisol snorted laughter, and Anna’s phone snapshot caught her at the perfect candid moment: happiness frozen forever in pixels. Anna looked at the screen. The picture wasn’t exactly the same, but it was probably okay—

Marisol tapped her on the arm. “I’m flattered, babe, but you can gaze upon my splendor later.” They grabbed the wedding gift bag and pelted down the stairs and out the lobby door to the street. Their timing was perfect, anyway: the car Anna had summoned pulled up, shiny and black, just as they reached the curb. They slid into the back, adjusting hems and getting comfortable: it was about a twenty-minute ride to the park where Del and Kelsey were getting married.

“The first of the college cohort to fall,” Marisol said. “How much do you want to bet they set off a domino chain reaction thing among the guests? We’ll probably have to go to ten weddings next summer.”

Better than ten funerals, Anna thought. Or thirty. She checked her purse for the thousandth time. She knew it was in there, and she knew it worked—she’d tested it extensively—but she couldn’t help but worry. You only got one second chance.

“Are you hearing wedding bells, or are you still happy just living in sin with me?” Anna said.

“We could sin a little bit more often, I wouldn’t mind. Besides, you know my family. Right now everyone can pretend we’re roommates, so I’m still welcome at christenings and quinceañera. In all the coming-out stories I heard, nobody ever said what to do if your family just pretends they don’t hear you.” She held Anna’s hand. “I thought you were philosophically opposed to marriage as a tool of the patriarchy anyway.”

“Yes, but we bought this fancy-ass crystal bowl for Del, and maybe I want my share of the loot.”

That set off another of Marisol’s sexily unsexy snorts. “I thought for sure you’d go baby-crazy before you went wedding-crazy.”

“I contain multitudes. But I’m not either one yet. We’ll talk about it when we’re thirty.”

“Thirty seemed a lot farther off when we were nineteen than it does now.”

“Well, sure. That was like a fifth of our lives ago.”

“Time does go by.”

You have no idea, Anna though.

The wedding was in Tilden Park, with the ceremony to be held outside and the reception right next door in the vaulted and paneled and windowed wonder of the Brazilian Room. The interior was paneled in beautiful exotic hardwoods, originally part of the 1939 World’s Fair Exhibition in San Francisco—the Brazilians had donated the building to the park as a gift, though the original exterior had been replaced by a faux-English-country-house construction in the ‘40s. The interior was original, though, and the wood paneling was beautiful. No bullet holes, Anna thought, looking through the windows at the interior as they arrived.

They found a great milling crowd and greeted friends, some of whom Anna hadn’t seen since undergrad (or much longer, depending). Two of the guests were wearing dresses Marisol had made for them, at too generous a “friends and family” discount in Anna’s opinion; she’d barely covered her materials costs. There were polite inquiries about Anna’s work, too, though she was the sole STEM-person in this particular group, and their eyes glazed over pre-emptively before the words “nanoscale engineering” were even out of her mouth. After a few minutes, ushers started ushering them toward the rows of white chairs set up on the lawn overlooking the hillside. The landscape wasn’t quite summer-crisped all the way brown yet; it was only May, after all.

Anna scanned the landscape. She’d come up here just a week ago, with sketches, and double-checked all the angles against her memory and the official reports, but it was different with the chairs put out, and all the people. The abstractions and intellectual calculations seemed so cold and ridiculous now that she was here, because many of these people were her friends, and they were so young and beautiful and handsome and happy, all frilly femme or sharp-dressed dapper or points in between, delighted to be here celebrating love, with no idea what the future held.

Del’s family was there, too, smiling and nodding and beaming, and a couple of Kelsey’s cousins (her immediate family were all famously assholes who’d disowned her when she came out), and Anna remembered meeting them last time. She considered skipping it this time, but then put on a smile and endured three minutes of chit-chat. No reason to risk changes now. The benchmarks she’d checked had all remained within tolerances, so she didn’t expect any surprises, but this was a chaotic system, all these people bumping against and bouncing off one another, so it was better to hew as close to the last iteration as possible.

The ushers ushered more assertively, and the guests got settled in their seats. The officiant, Del’s ex-girlfriend Robin, took her place up front before a freestanding flower arch, and said, “Welcome, everyone!” A guitarist seated off to one side started plucking a pretty melody, and the family made their way down the aisle to their seats in the front row.

Anna kept her eyes forward, looking beyond the arch, at the hillside, and the scrubby bushes there.

The wedding party proceeded up the aisle next, a mix of tuxes and dresses and (inevitably) a kilt. Anna and Del had been really close, once upon a time, but Anna had been eclipsed by better friends since college, and she hadn’t been invited as a bridesmaid. That had stung a little, at the time, but now she was glad to be in the audience instead of lining up on either side of the arche: that’s why she’d survived to be in the audience now, again, after all.

Anna slipped her hand into the purse and held onto the canister she’d made and filled with all her hopes for a better future.

Next came the happy couple, walking each other down the aisle, because fuck it: Del was in a custom zoot suit, and Kelsey wore a tailored tux, complete with tails, and it was such a perfect picture of their clashing but complementary personal styles that waves of spontaneous applause broke out in the crowd. The couple took their places on either side of the officiant, and Robin began to speak, using that drama-major voice to great effect.

Anna didn’t hear a word. She mentally counted to five, then slid the canister an inch out of her bag and depressed the nozzle. There was a nearly inaudible hiss, and an invisible cloud sprayed out of the canister and caught the breeze, drifting scentlessly and invisibly over the crowd. She stopped pressing after counting to three. She didn’t want to use up all the contents. Not yet.

“What’s that?” Marisol said, glancing down at the purse in Anna’s lap. She didn’t answer. There was no time.

The gunman emerged from the bushes on the hillside just when Anna expected him to. He was wearing desert camouflage, his face was mostly beard and sunglasses, and he cradled an AR-15 assault rifle like a baby in his arms. The entire wedding party had their backs to him, and when he brought the gun up to rake fire across their bodies, none of them noticed, and most of them would have died without even knowing they were under attack—

Except his gun didn’t fire. Anna let herself exhale. She waited a few long heartbeats to see if she would dissolve, cease to exist, or otherwise fade to black, but life and breath and screaming went on, so that was one hypothesis disproven.

The gunman stood, bewildered, then fiddled with something—a safety, the trigger, whatever—and tried again. By now people had noticed him, and some were shrieking or running, several were on their phones to 911, the wedding party was scattering, and Del dragged Kelsey by the arm toward the safety of the nearby building.

Marisol shouted and tugged at Anna’s arm, but she shook her girlfriend off, stepped into the aisle, and strode forward. She counted her steps. One two three four five down the aisle, five six seven eight toward the arch, nine ten eleven twelve through the arch and toward the gunman. She hadn’t been entirely sure who he was, since the pale-and-bearded crowd was statistically overrepresented in his group, and she’d only gotten a glimpse of him, the first time.

He stared at her, looked at her purse with her hand inside it—did he think she had a gun? She wanted him to think that, though the truth was so much worse. For him. He looked toward the hillside, considering running, then lifted his assault rifle in an overhand grip, preparing to smash Anna over the head with the butt.

The gun fell apart in his hands: not crumbling to dust, though Anna had considered that option, but simply falling apart like a busted Lego version of itself, the clip falling out and hitting the ground, and the grip, and the barrel, until he was left with nothing but a trigger guard and a chunk of the stock on his finger like an oversized novelty ring.

“Hi,” Anna said. “You killed my girlfriend once.” She took the canister out of her pocket and sprayed it right into his face. He staggered back, clutching at his eyes, probably thinking it was pepper spray or mace, but then he fell over, already dead, arteries sealed and fused as thoroughly as all the moving parts in his gun had been.

She hurled the canister into the bushes, and it disintegrated itself so thoroughly that it had entirely turned to dust before it could hit the ground.

Marisol came up behind her, grabbed her shoulder, and spun her around. “Anna, what are you doing?”

“Saving your life.” Everything went gray and swimmy and then Anna was trembling and sobbing and shaking in Marisol’s arms, the tension of almost an entire year dropping out from under her all at once, her relief an obliterating wave within her.

Not that she was done with tension. This was only the start, she knew, but the beginning was the most important part.

Marisol was alive. From here on out, everything changed, and the future was theirs to shape anew.

They wedding party and guests spent a long time in the reception hall as the cops confirmed there was only one shooter, and then interviewed everyone, but it wasn’t nearly the ordeal it had been the first time around: no shots had been fired this time, after all. The waiting was boring, though. Last time, Anna had been in shock, Marisol’s blood all over her gown, and so the passage of time had been more dreamlike and less tedious. Several cops asked Anna why she went toward the shooter, and every time, she said, “To stop him.” She had actual pepper spray in her purse, as a cover in case anyone had seen her holding up the other canister, and she told the cops she’d planned to spray the gunman in the face… before he keeled over on his own. “Looked like a heart attack,” she said, and then paused. “I guess I should have given him CPR.” Nobody seemed to know quite how to respond to that.

There was food, at least, and they ate, though nobody touched the cake.

They were all set free after a few hours. Del worked the room in her usual gladhanding fashion, promising everyone they’d be in touch about rescheduling the ceremony—“We’ll just do it in our yard next time guys, and keep it casual.”

Marisol and Anna caught a ride home, numb, and went into their apartment building silently, up the elevator silently, and silently into their little apartment with the balcony and the partial view of Lake Merritt. They changed into leggings and tank tops and sat out there on the balcony, looking at the last of the sun dappling the water, side by side, holding hands. Finally Marisol said, “That was so fucked up. Was that gun even real? Was it some kind of toy? What was that guy trying to do?”

“It was real,” Anna said. “An AR-15.” The police had recovered the weapon, last time: the shooter had been smart enough to wipe his prints and ditch it when he made his escape. He had lots more guns where that one came from, after all.

“Did he say something, when you walked up to him?” Marisol said. “It seemed like you were talking.”

Anna shrugged. “He’s a member of an organization, part social club, part cult, part internet comment section with feet. They call themselves the Sons of Purity. Which suggests they don’t entirely understand how people have sons, but whatever. It’s a play on the ‘Sons of Liberty,’ the group from the Revolutionary War, I guess. They’re the most lunatic edge of the lunatic fringe, a bunch of weaponized red piller men’s-rights pickup artist gamergate shitbags, but gun-crazy, like if Elliot Rodger had formed a militia instead of murdering women on the street all alone. SoP consider themselves revolutionaries, overthrowing the tyranny of queer liberal feminist social justice.”

“The vagenda of manocide,” Marisol said.

“Right. Only not funny. Oh, and they hate brown people and Jews too. So, attacking an interracial lesbian wedding in Berkeley? Seemed like a good place to make their debut.”

“He told you all that? You were only talking to him for a second. Did you tell the cops this?”

Anna pretended she didn’t hear. “But today was just the start. They’ll only claim responsibility for this attack later, after their manifesto drops, and they won’t publish that for another six weeks… after the Pride Parade bombing.” She didn’t mention the stabbings at Del and Kelsey’s memorial that would have happened next week, if Anna hadn’t stopped the massacre.

“Wait, what? They’re terrorist revolutionaries, but they can’t even put a gun together without having it fall apart at the moment of truth?”

“The gun didn’t have to fall apart. It could have worked. It could have killed twenty-eight people. The whole wedding party, and a good chunk of the guests. And injured a lot more. The people who got out unscathed were the minority, overall.” Anna had been in that minority, by pure happenstance, with dead women on all sides: like living in the one house mysteriously untouched by the passage of a tornado.

Marisol dropped her hand, scraped her chair around sideways, and looked at her girlfriend. “Anna, what are you talking about? Are you in shock?”

This was the moment. Anna had been dreading it. There was no good way to do it. “I’m, um, no. I’m not in shock. I’m from the future. Or, my mind is.”

Marisol stared at her for a moment. Then: “Are you going to elaborate on that?”

Anna went into TA lecture mode. She’d practiced this part, in her head, even in front of the mirror, but after a sentence or two she started to drift off book, responding to the skepticism and confusion on Marisol’s face. “In about sixty years, we’ll develop the technology to send information back into the past. Just messages, at first, inserted into existing streams of digital information—we could send emails to the past, more or less. We could communicate with our past selves, mainly, because they were the ones we could convince, because we knew all their secrets. Over time, the process was… refined. Eventually we discovered how to send back consciousness itself. Minds. Really, it’s a copy of a mind, though the original is destroyed in the process—basically, you digitize a brain, and send the neural map back in time, and insert it into the brain where it originated. You can’t take over someone else’s body—just your own, younger one, and only with permission from your younger self, in writing, since they have to give up the body.” A lot of potential hosts refused. Young Anna hadn’t, once everything was explained to her. “That’s an ethics thing, in part, but it’s a practical issue, too. The neural architecture has to be just right. My mind wouldn’t run properly on another brain.” She took a deep breath. “I was eighty-six years old, Marisol, when I called in every favor I had to work on the program, and eventually take part. They couldn’t really say no to me—I pioneered the technology that made digitizing brains and preserving minds possible in the first place. I basically gave some rich assholes access to immortality, and in exchange… I got to come back in time, and try to save you.”

Marisol cocked her head. She’d always been a science fiction fan, a watcher of Black Mirror and reader of Le Guin and Hurley and Okorafor; part of her initial attraction to Anna had been because she was working on making imaginary futures some true. “Wait. So I’m dead in this original timeline?”

“You. Del. Kelsey. Their families. Tina, Bronwyn, Jesse with an e and Jessi with an i… twenty-eight people. Corinna lost most of her jaw, and Winnie, who runs all those marathons, had her spine severed halfway down. What I saw, what happened, it haunted me, forever. I never got over it. I never attended another wedding. I barely dated again. I just… worked.”

“Anna, come on. If you changed time, changed history, that would change the whole future, right? Like, you won’t be sad now, so you won’t work on mind uploading now, so the technology will never exist, and you won’t be able to come back. You told me yourself, time travel is stupid, time’s arrow is an illusion, everything that happens is just what happens… I think you’re in shock, babe.”

Anna shook her head. “I’m not. Like I said, we could send information back. We could communicate, and some of us did, with our past selves. The ones in the past, they’d just send an email to an address we set up on a server that was maintained for decades, and we could go read their messages on that server—we could read them before our younger selves even sent them, but only if they did send them, at some point; we tried to spoof the system and we couldn’t—anyway. None of that seemed to change anything, the future remained intact, and eventually we even started to remember talking to our future selves when we were younger. That was odd. But then, this data scientist named Roger told his past self to invest heavily in a certain technology company that was about to go big… and not long after that, we lost contact with his younger self, and everyone else we’d been talking to, as well. Our messages just bounced back.”

Marisol frowned. “So, what, young Roger invested, and got rich, and when the past changed, it became inaccessible?”

“Right. Once that past stopped closely resembling the past my colleague remembered, we lost contact. We weren’t sure what happened: if the timeline diverged, ceased to be connected to our future, and continued on its own, new timeline… or if that timeline was destroyed, somehow, proved too unstable to continue, and disappeared. We just didn’t know. We had to start all over, reach out to our past selves again, and it was like everything reset—they’d never heard of us before.”

“What about when you sent minds back? To their younger bodies? Didn’t that change the past, and the future?”

Anna shifted uncomfortably. The theory was largely beyond her—she was a practical hardware person, even if it was very small hardware—but she nodded. “Sometimes. Our first couple of experiments tried really hard to do what they’d done originally. We were able to send back documentation, diaries and things, to help them conform to the original timeline—to do what they’d done in the first place. As long as they followed protocol, we could communicate. But every life has tragedy in it, you know, and none of us were so hard-hearted we could resist the urge to fix the worst ones. Maybe you still let a pet die, okay, or a not-too-serious car crash, but a child? A spouse? A city? The people we sent back always meddled, and tried to fix things, and as soon as they did—poof. No more contact. We still didn’t know if they continued on new timelines or just vanished.” She gestured at the balcony, the lake, downtown Oakland beyond. “Now I know. You get a new timeline. That’s a relief. Whatever future we’re going to now, it’s not the one I came from, and I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Anna paused. “Do you believe me?”

“What’s that thing you say whenever I try to explain God to you, Anna?”

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Marisol nodded. “Yes. That. So. What’s it going to be? How are you going to prove this? Do we nail next week’s winning lottery numbers?”

Anna had been in her old—well, young—body for the best part of a year, and had already made a lot of money with her knowledge of the future, all in ways less public than winning the lottery. “I can do better than that, if you’ll come with me to my lab. I can show you something from another time.”

“You keep mysterious future technology in your lab? The one you share with Squinty Carl and the science twins?”

Returning from the splendor of her well-funded future to sharing workspace with her annoying grad school colleagues had not been one of the best parts of coming to the past. “No. Different lab. Let’s go to my car.”

“Wait. Since when do you have a car?”

They didn’t speak for most of the ride to one of Oakland’s assorted warehouse districts, but as they parked, Marisol said, “I can’t believe you bought a car and didn’t tell me.”

Anna shrugged. “Where I’m from nobody drives really, except weirdos, or for sports. You just call a self-driving car. I could barely remember how to drive, even, when I came back. But if you’re going to run a secret life…. You need some mobility.”

“This is bullshit, Anna. Why did you keep the car from me? I thought you’d had a very reasonable psychotic break, and was ready to be patient with your time-travel bullshit, but it turns out you’ve been doing fucked-up stuff for a while, and I am not okay with it.”

“I’ve been back in this body for ten months, and I didn’t want to tell you anything, Mari. If I told you about the car, and you rode in it, and we got in an accident and you died, that would kind of mess up the whole reason for my trip.”

“Wouldn’t just buying the car change your future, though?”

Anna nodded. “Probably, but not significantly. There are… benchmarks, we call them. Tolerances. As long as we stay within those marks, we’re okay, and the integrity of the timeline remains, and I can keep communicating with the future, and trust that things will play out as they did the first time. There’s a little wiggle room, for changes that don’t impact the timeline much. I spent a lot of time working late hours alone in my lab, in the original timeline, so I could spend that time doing other things, like preparing for today, without anyone noticing. I took part in all the big events, I hit all the right marks, and the future didn’t change—until today. Sure, I risked getting in a car accident myself, but.” She shrugged. “Then you probably would have been sad, maybe not gone to the wedding, you would have lived. Saving you was step one. Saving everybody else was step two. Living happily ever after in a new future is step four. Now we just have to handle step three.”

“Which is?”

“Let me offer you proof of sanity first.” They went down a smelly alley to the side door of a warehouse, and Anna undid many locks, and turned off some special invisible countermeasures that would have made everyone at the NSA faint in shock if they’d seen them. She opened the door, and gestured for Marisol to go in first. Anna had always enjoyed walking behind her.

Anna flipped on the lights. There wasn’t all that much inside: drums of chemical materials, a neatly cluttered workbench, a cot for power naps, a couple of chairs, and, of course, the centerpiece of the room: a cylindrical column of pale gray stone about the height of a pedestal sink, three feet in diameter, with a shallowly concave surface that seemed to shimmer and glitter.

“This is my precious,” Anna said. “I call it my magic millstone. Like the folktale, where the demon gives the poor man a magic millstone, and it can create whatever he wants? Like he can say, ‘I want food—grind, my millstone!’ and it makes food until he says ‘Enough, the work is done.’”

Marisol walked around the column in a circle. “And his greedy brother steals the millstone and tells it to make salt, and the millstone does, but the brother doesn’t know the magic words to make it stop grinding, so his boat sinks under the weight of tons of salt, and he dies.”

“That’s the one.”

“My grandmother used to tell me that story.”

“I know,” Anna said.

Marisol was preoccupied and faraway. “I could never figure out what the point of the story was supposed to be. Be careful what you wish for? Don’t be greedy? Choose your words carefully? Hide your magic grinding stone from your stupid relatives?”

“We talked about that story on our first date, because we went to that bar called the Millstone and I was like, what even is a millstone? Isn’t it a thing you hang around someone’s neck when you want to dispose of their body in a pond? Which in retrospect was not the least creepy thing I could have said on a first date.”

“That’s right. I remember. So what does your millstone grind?”

“How about diamonds?” Anna said, “Grind, millstone, grind. Make me diamonds.”

There were pipes and conduit under the floor, drawing power and feeding raw material, but to the visible eye, it was all magic: the concave bowl began to fill with tiny chips of crystalline sparkle, seemingly appearing from nothing, until there was a good-sized heap of gems on the column. “Enough, the work is done.” Anna stepped toward the millstone. “Come look.”

Marisol picked up the diamonds and sifted them in her hands. “These are real?”

“Sure. It’s just carbon. We can already make artificial diamonds in this timeline… though they’re not as convincing as mine. Machines can still tell modern synthetics from real ones. Mine are undetectable. They have realistic impurities, they look like they formed underground instead of in a lab, and the surface fluorescence can pass any test currently available. Diamonds are as cheap as dirt where I come from, because you can make them from dirt, and no one can tell synthetic from natural at all.”

Marisol spilled the gems out of her hand. “What else can you make?”

Anna swept the gems into a plastic container and set it on the end of the worktable, clearing the millstone’s surface. “Just about anything, if I have the right precursors, and time to program the system. Diamonds are pretty easy. I can create simple machines, and complex machines, and very very small machines. Biologicals are harder. I can create fake meat, but it’s not very convincing. The toothfeel is all wrong.”

“Small machines.” Marisol took a long step away from the millstone. “What did you use to stop the gunman? What was in that canister?”

“Nanotech. Programmable smart matter—you read Iain M. Banks, right? He called it ‘smatter.’ Swarms of microscopic machines, altering matter at the molecular level. My mist sought out the gun and then turned into glue, basically, gumming up all the moving parts, and then it ate through selected portions of the metal and took the gun apart.”

“Did you kill the gunman?”

Anna bowed her head. “Yes. I closed up his heart.”

“You saw that man kill me? And our friends? You saw that?”

“I can still see it, Mari. If I close my eyes, I can see it any time I want, and lots of times I don’t want. I killed him. I fantasized about it for decades, and planned it for years, and executed it today. I’m not sorry.”

Marisol came close, wrapped Anna in her arms, an held her for a long time. “Thank you,” she said. “If it had been me, I wouldn’t have killed him that mercifully.”

“You believe me now?” Anna had more proofs to offer—secrets she’d learned from Marisol’s family after the funeral, and predictions about sporting events and world news, assuming she hadn’t knocked the present so far off course that those didn’t unfold as predicted; she thought the timeline would be pretty similar in the short term, though.

Marisol stroked her hair. “You never lied to me before. It’s unbelievable, but I saw what I saw. You knew the gunman was coming. You’ve been weird for the past ten months. I thought it was just your work, that you were focused on your research. But now I think….” Marisol stepped back. “We were apart, from your point of view, for longer than we’ve been together. Lots longer. You still think you love me? How do you even remember me? How am I not a stranger?”

Anna reached out to her, and Marisol allowed her to hold both her hands. Anna resisted the urge to pull her back into an embrace. “I admit, it was a long time. My memory faded. But I never forgot. And preparing for this trip, going over my diaries and letters and emails and social media posts and everything, made it feel fresh again. I came back ten months before the wedding, partly to prepare, but mostly so we’d have some time together, in case today went badly, and I failed. I never felt as good, in my whole life, as I did with you. You’re the love of my life.”

Marisol was silent for a moment. “No pressure,” she said.

Anna laughed. She stepped back and wiped at her eyes. “Yeah. No. I knew, when I told you this, it might be too much. I am a different person. I took over your girlfriend’s body, even if it was my body in the first place, even if I had permission. And I lied to you for almost a year, and then I killed someone, and God, Mari, if you wanted to break up with me and never see me again, how could I blame you? I’m prepared to disappear forever, if that will make you happier. When I said step four was live happily ever after, I knew we might not be ever-aftering together. But I’ll live happily just knowing you are alive.”

“Don’t get all sappy,” Marisol said. “The future techno-assassin thing was super hot, and you’re going to ruin it with too many feelings. Okay. We’re not breaking up. Not now. We’re going to have to find a really open-minded couples therapist at some point, probably, but table that for now. Let’s not worry about step four. What’s step three?”

“The Sons of Purity. They bomb the San Francisco Pride parade in about six weeks. Not just one bomb. A coordinated attack. They have a couple of people in the police department, so they arranged for blind spots where the explosives won’t be discovered. Basically, their goal is to push every queer of any description way back into the closet, on fear of death. That doesn’t work, the pushback is huge, the solidarity protests are massive, and the FBI and ATF track down the leaders of the organization, but it gets messy first. There’s armed violence all over the Bay Area. Fires and gunfights and mayhem. It’s bad.”

Anna shuddered. “That’s horrible. Fucking terrorists. Wait. Do the cops call them terrorists? Or the news?”

“Of course not,” Anna said. “They’re white. I remember one news story, I shit you not, refers to them as a ‘Loose association of troubled lone wolves.’”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. So. We’re going to stop them?”

“Ah. I am. You’re going to drive yourself home, and then, using my vast secret foreknowledge and arsenal of future tech, I’m going to wipe out the SoP leadership before they can do any harm or drop their manifesto. They don’t get to be anything, not a footnote, not a memory, they don’t even get a goddamn Wikipedia entry, and—Mari?”

Marisol stood by the millstone with her head down, staring at her own hands, turning them over, gazing at her palms and the backs of her hands.

Anna panicked—was this all too much? This whole day was sensory overload, and now Marisol had to hear about her time-traveling girlfriend’s retroactive preemptive revenge murder spree—

“I’m going with you.” Marisol stepped away from the column, toward the lab’s interior wall. “They’re next door, aren’t they? The SoP headquarters. That’s why you chose this spot for your lab. It’s next to their gathering place, and their armory, and you think they’ll be there tonight, doing a postmortem on why their first attack went wrong.”


“Grind, millstone,” Marisol said. “Make me a pistol.”

Nothing happened. Marisol pointed at Anna. “You say it. It’s keyed to your voice, right?”

Anna blinked. “It is, but I haven’t asked it to make a gun before, I’d have to load a template…. Marisol, why do you want a gun? I have nanotech for this fight, and you’re going home anyway, and have you ever even shot a pistol?”

“I’m qualified in all small arms, yes. Among other things. I need a weapon, Anna. I have accepted everything you’ve said—accept what I say, now.”

Anna didn’t argue. There was no point arguing when Marisol was like this; she remembered that much. She opened her laptop—a contemporary computer, of course, but the operating system was from the future, and would have made the NSA faint with shock all over again if they’dseen it—and pulled down weapon schematics. “Do you have a preference, or—”

“Glock 19, please. It’s smaller than the 17. I have little hands.”

Anna clicked, dragged, checked the system requirements and precursor levels, took a breath, and said, “Grind, millstone, grind. Make me a gun.”

They watched as the shimmering concavity filled with flecks of black metal that gradually built itself into a gun: like watching a sand sculpture being assembled by invisible hands. Marisol plucked the finished pistol from the concavity, disassembled it, and examined its components as ammunition filled the bowl.

“Enough, the work is done,” Anna said once a dozen bullets had appeared.

Marisol reassembled the pistol, dry-fired it, nodded, and then loaded it. “I’d like to test fire it, but I guess we shouldn’t make too much noise.” She pointed at the wall. “Let’s go through. They’re inside already, I’m sure, having an emergency crisis meeting.”

“Mari, how do you know—”

“Later. Let’s get this done. I hate waiting around. I’ve done enough waiting for two lifetimes.”

Anna had spent decades as a bossy misanthrope ruling her lab with an iron fist, and wasn’t used to someone else being all take-charge, but then, that was fundamental Marisol: she did what she wanted, told people the truth, and charged forward fearlessly in the service of whatever cause she chose. It was part of what Anna had never stopped loving about her. “You’d better not die,” Anna said. “I went to a lot of trouble to save you.”

“You got me a second chance. That’s more than just about anybody gets. Let’s make the most of it.”

Anna lined up a few little glass—well, glass-like—globes on the work table, each the size and shape of a simple Christmas ornament. Then she said, “Grind, millstone, grind. Let’s dissolve a wall.”

The wall was concrete, and thick, but the almost-invisible glittery dust that rose up from the millstone and flew to the wall ate through it rapidly, clouds of dust puffing up briefly, only to be consumed and replicated by the smart matter, creating more machines of dissolution.

A hubbub of alarmed voices rose on the other side of the wall, and Anna leaned over from her place by the workbench to peek through the opening and make sure it was the SoP on the other side before she—

Marisol shoved Anna out of the way, lifted the pistol, and fired several shots through the opening. “Now, Anna!” she shouted, and Anna picked up the glass globes and lobbed them through the opening.

There were five globes. They all contained programmed particulates. One cloud sealed all the exits with a tough, fibrous, greasy black polymer, including the opening that led into Anna’s laboratory, making escape impossible without tools and time.

The other four globes did different terrible things, but quickly, so the screaming didn’t last long.

Marisol sat on the floor and put her head in her hands, shoulders shaking. Anna rushed to her, thinking she was crying, but then Marisol lifted her face, and she was laughing. “I rehearsed it a thousand times, but I didn’t know exactly how it happened, where they were, where you were, I only had the best guesses from ballistics, and I was so afraid I’d choke or miss or mess it up, but you’re okay, Anna, you’re here.”

“You’re from the future, aren’t you?” Anna said.

“You sent me home,” Marisol said. “The first time around. And like a fool, I went. You never came back to me. I went to the warehouse and there was a hole in the wall and you were dead. The Sons of Purity shot you, probably when you peeked through the opening, the way you almost did today. When I got here, they were gone, but I got the police on their scent, and most of the group was caught. They still set off a bomb at Pride, but just one, and it was bad, but not as bad. The investigation confirmed the whole SoP leadership was present when you were killed, so I think we cut the head off the snake just now.”

“Mari. Oh, Mari. You came back for me? How? When? Just now?” Anna thought she knew when: that moment, by the millstone, with Marisol looking at her hands, as if marveling that they were even her hands, young and strong.

Marisol nodded. “I couldn’t have spent, what, ten months, pretending, like you did. That’s not me. I would have gone crazy waiting. You know I don’t have patience for anything except sewing and sex. It took longer to develop the tech in my timeline than it did in yours—I was in my nineties when I got a chance to take a ride back. It’s a good thing the women in my family live so long. I didn’t have your way in, either. I don’t do science, I couldn’t work on the project, so I had to get rich, and fund research. Your millstone devoured itself and turned to dust—which sucked, because it would have made getting rich a lot easier.”

“Ah, yeah, sorry. Safety protocol. I didn’t want the millstone falling into the wrong hands, by which I mean, anybody else’s.”

Marisol snorted. “Fortunately I had your laptop with your notes and all, so I had some idea which scientists to watch, and support, and nudge. I knew projection through tie was possible, so I convinced them it was possible, and here I am.”

“And now… we’re in a new future.” Anna exhaled. “A whole new one. For both of us.”

“Even better, we’re both old ladies in young bodies, which is good, because Anna, mi alma, it would not have worked the other way, like you planned. I don’t mind an age difference, you remember me and Lenore, but you being a hermity recluse for sixty years and putting all the pressure for your future happiness on me? That would not have gone well. In my future, I got married and missed you and had a life and outlived my wife and—now this is my retirement. I saved you, so my life’s one major regret is undone. It’s a good beginning. Let’s go into retirement together, and see if it works. We might not stay together, you know that, we’re literally different people now, but… there’s a chance. Our second chance.”

“Damn it, Marisol,” Anna said. “I was going to totally wow you with my wisdom and experience, and you ruined it.”

“It’s okay,” Marisol said. “I’ll wow you with my sophisticated sex moves instead. My late wife was a gymnast.”

“No pressure,” Anna said.

“I was in my nineties until twenty minutes ago, Anna. You are pure sexy science to me right now. There will be plenty of wow to go around.”

Anna got to her feet. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll set the millstone to sanitize the area, make sure there’s no trace of us… or the SoP. They’ll just vanish, and be turned into dust. It’s probably better not to leave this tech lying around, either. It’s dangerous, honestly, and I can’t create proper containment protocols without drawing a lot of power and attention. If I have the millstone, I’ll be tempted to use it, and you’ll want disintegrate the neighbors if they’re too noisy and stuff, and that’s no good.” Anna patted the column. “I think it’s better if we make our own way forward.”

“And you already have a good stash of diamonds?”

“And I already have a good stash of diamonds.”

“Excellent,” Marisol said. “I already made one fortune with a fashion empire. It was exhausting.”

“So… what should we do? With the rest of our lives.”

Marisol drew Anna close and kissed her for a long time. Then she pulled back, and said, “Step four.”

About the Author

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of over 20 novels, most recently Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars. As T.A. Pratt he wrote ten novels in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series. His stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, and other nice places. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He’s a senior editor at Locus magazine, and lives in Berkeley CA with his family. Every month he writes a new story for his Patreon supporters at

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Tim Pratt

About the Narrator

Amy H. Sturgis

Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History and specializes in Science Fiction/Fantasy and Indigenous American Studies. She is staff on the StarShipSofa podcast, Editor in Chief of Hocus Pocus Comics, and faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University and Signum University. She lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge highlands of Virginia in the United States. Her website is

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