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A short story by Brad Templeton

This is a science-fiction Time-Travel story written in 1992. It's mostly serious, but I'm told it has its funny moments, particularly if you have been to a science fiction convention.

Now let me say from the start that I've always hated time yuppies. Well, actually, like most of the people at the timecon, I both loved and hated them. Even though he wasn't dressed for it, things about this guy practically shouted that he was a time yuppie.

He had accosted me in the hotel lobby just moments after I had come in through the airlock. He was certainly an unusual character, with the babyish face of a teen-ager but the demeanor of somebody much older. He was wearing black jeans, no skin-tight body suit, a silk shirt and a thin, smooth leather jacket exuding the brand-new smell -- but what had my attention was the simple looking book he had proffered to me from the jacket's pocket. Its cover was blank except for a few words set in the lower right hand corner: Divergent Paths by Jeremy Blacker.

"Guaranteed Hugo, I tell ya. It's guaranteed. This book already won the Hugo three to one, and the Nebula, too. How can you lose?"

"If it won a Hugo, then everybody from your time," I said with a sarcastic emphasis on the last two words, "already knows about it. Even if I did buy it from you, what could I do with it?"

"Publish it under your own name, of course, and make a mint. Fame, groupies -- you think Orson Card doesn't have groupies?"

This guy was a sleaze. You could always tell that when somebody dropped a name and didn't even get it right. On the other hand, I wondered, this mistake might indicate he really was a time yuppie, and not just one of the many imposters you find at these cons.

"Right," I said, "and get arrested by half the time police the moment before I decide to publish. No thanks."

"No, no..." he pleaded, "it's not like that. You think I would let that happen to you, dudemeister? If they got you, they'd have you plugged so fast that a description of me would be on the fiber before I even sold you the book. There's an angle to this."

"Uh huh." I couldn't help but be a little intrigued. Besides, where on Earth did he get a word like "dudemeister?"

"This book won the Hugo in 1998. But not this 1998. It was another 1998 about 7 years ago from here. And here's the good part." He looked around with conspiratorial glances, as if that would do him any good. "The guy who wrote this doesn't even exist any more as a writer. His whole world got erased about 2 years back. I got in and took a copy of this book just before the last few minutes got wiped. It was a protected zone, but my Betsy's got a few features that nobody knows about."

Betsy was probably his timecar, if he had one. I was beginning to concede he might. I asked him what he meant by erased.

"Look, you live in what we call a class 4 modified zone. This is what, minus 847, right?"

"848." If he did have a timecar, it was clear that he didn't set the coordinates on it himself. Of course, I, like every other timefan who lived in the zone, knew the displacement to the second.

"Whatever. This book comes from minus 840 point five or something. It was a class 1. Minus 840 itself is another class 3, similar to your zone. Your zone was an illegal mod, and for the past few years, it's been slowly erasing all of this class 1."

Time travelers refer to the different coordinates on the time stream in terms of displacement from what they call the present. The present is, as far as they believe, the front of the time stream. Beyond it, the future just doesn't exist. Here in the past, well, what they call the past, people are just playing out the stream of history left behind by the present -- until a time traveler shows up and changes it. Then all hell breaks loose and a whole new zone is formed. The zone moves forward at the same speed as the present, keeping a fixed distance from that present, and leaving its own trail behind, erasing the old past that used to be there.

The "illegal mod," as he so euphemistically put it, was the assassination of a guy named William Gates by his great-great-great-whatever grandson in 1974. Gates, a Harvard student of no particular distinction, was apparently destined to become somebody really important in computers, and to put it in technical terms, it fucked up our area of "history" pretty good. Apparently ancestor-assassination is a popular fad with depressed rich kids in what the press so cutely term a "self-erasing" mood. Gates, of course, was "eighty eighty-sixed" (haha) before siring the line that led to this grandson. You can't erase yourself, naturally, but you can start slowly erasing your history. We were a class 4 zone, so at least we got to know what our illegal mod was.

"Anyway," he said, "there was this writer in 840.5 who really had the spark. He came out of the blue with these amazing stories. Action. Suspense. Prose that'll eat into your brain and make you stare at the ceiling in blank thought for ten minutes after you're finished reading it. He was good. And this," he said, patting his chest, "was his best."

"So how did his world get erased?" I asked. "I thought you couldn't erase a world entirely."

"Smart guy," he said, drawing out the words. "You're right. But this one's a sliver of time only a couple of seconds long. Most people don't even know it's there. Somebody made a change, then somebody corrected it almost right away. They recorded it as a perfect correction." He enunciated each word slowly and with glee. "But this tiny sliver of altered world is crawling up the time stream, leaving no trail. It's in the records, but nobody cares because they think the change was fixed. But it wasn't. Something in the change turned this guy from an ordinary writer to a great one, and I'm the only one who noticed."

"Why is that?"

"I just did. The change affected one of my ancestors, so I looked it up. Million to one shot."

A smile beamed off his young face. He was pretty proud of himself for discovering this, but I still couldn't see the angle, and I knew he was hiding something. A few feet from us, another possible traveler walked by surrounded by novice writers pawing for ideas. I hate writer wannabees, even though I am one. We moved further into a less occupied corner until we were hidden behind big palm fronds stuck in brass buckets.

"OK," I said, "let's assume that you have this book, that it's great, and that somehow it's clean and nobody else outside of this time sliver has ever read it. What does that mean for me? I can hardly pay you anything for it. Why don't you publish it in your own time? Surely you can get more for it there, and you wouldn't have to risk charges of infopiracy."

If I found out what zone he was from, I would have to check if it was one of those that conveyed constitutional protection to people from earlier zones. A lot of them don't, which is why we're in the mess we're in. Supposedly there is a place where you can check those things -- it's one of the few things we can get official word on, far-future wise.

"There's the catch, my friend," he said. "The story is great, but it's wrong. It's got a really bad technical flaw tied right into the plot that I can't tell you about. People would laugh at it 100 years from now. But it was written for your kind of world and people here will love it."

Science fiction has changed a lot since the arrival of the time travelers. Well, the whole world has changed a lot, but I suspect you know that. Used to be that the future was not just unknown, but unknowable. The fact that there are guys around who can tell you if your stuff is hogwash puts a real damper on writers. That's why you see the wannabes congregating around any suspected time traveler at any timecon. Everybody wants to bounce ideas off them. They're not supposed to tell us a lot, but a little is allowed to slip through, and the writers pounce on every tidbit they can swallow. I've heard tales of writers leaping up from perfectly good parties (even those featuring free single malt scotch) at the slightest nibble of information about the future, to run to their rooms, grab their clipboard computers and start writing, before the other writers can get a chance. That's if they don't just carry their computers with them.

Some writers deliberately avoid timecons and try to write the old way. But everybody knows that "Based on real information about the future" on your book cover gets you a lot more orders from the chain bookstores. Hell, it stops the fans from asking, "where do you get your ideas?" and it's a lot better than writing Trek. I hate Trek, even though I've written some.

I still couldn't figure out what I had that a time traveler would want. I tried again to find out the price.

"Let's not talk about that yet," he said. This guy must have done some time selling cars on the El Camino. "Why not read the book and tell me what you think? And don't put the paper in the copier," he winked, "I don't think you'll like what would happen."

We agreed to meet back at the bar in a few hours and parted ways. I went to a quiet corner of the lobby, sat down in one of those huge overstuffed chairs you only find in quiet corners of hotel lobbies, and started to read.

Even halfway into the second paragraph a tense excitement began to surge within me. The book was everything he promised it would be -- but the excitement came not from that, but from the fact that it seemed to prove he really was a time traveler. I had talked to lots of "probably" travelers at cons before, but I had never been sure that one was bona fide before. That was the whole idea of having imposters -- the uncertainty cuts back on the mods their visits make to a zone.

But this guy was real and the book was real. The prose was the kind of prose I had always dreamed about writing. The book had me enthralled from the first sentence. Every word seemed perfectly placed. Every description, every metaphor, had the imagery of a Van Gogh. There weren't a lot of characters, but they were perfect. Like he predicted, I stared at the ceiling in blank thought for a minute after putting down the first few pages.

Then the novel ended right in the middle -- the S.O.B. had only given me half of it. I was sure then that he had worked in sales. I decided to go hunt the con for him.

There was quite a bustle on the floor. Silicon Valley is full of technophiles and SF fans, and cons here are always a big draw. A ``big'' draw in more ways than one; I'm 200 pounds, and not exactly Mr. LightWeight, but I always love cons because they make me feel thin.

I wandered through the crowd, reading buttons and badges and looking for old friends. I had only been at the con for 20 minutes when the baby-faced time-yuppie in the leather jacket (I made a note that this would make a great filk title) grabbed me and eased us both away from the crowd. It was almost as though he had been looking for me. I still couldn't figure out why, or what I could possibly pay him.

Or if I even wanted to deal with him. Sure, I had always wanted to be a great writer, and if he researched me, he surely knew that. But there had to be a hundred people at the con like that. Every SF fan dreams of being a writer at some time or another. I also had to consider what his kind had done to our world. Let's face it, the arrival of time-ships from the future was not exactly a stabilizing influence on the world economy. The gangs of teen-age time vandals standing in front of the New York Stock Exchange selling copies of tomorrow's Wall Street Journal probably had a teensy bit to do with the market crash, too.

Once a zone finds out about the existence of time travelers, it gets upped to a class 3 and travelers are allowed to visit it relatively openly. There are still a lot of restrictions on what they can say, and, of course they have to wear pressure suits when they go outside, so you still don't get a lot of them.

When a world finds out a bit more about the future, it gets promoted to class 4 and some of the restrictions come off. One of the things that's allowed is these timecons. Usually, they're held in conjunction with science fiction cons, since it seems SF fans are the crowd most eager to meet with and talk to those travelers that want to visit.

Mostly you get time yuppies at these things. Time yuppies are rich young dilettantes with too much money and a desire to go past-hopping. Most of them come from zones minus 300 to minus 600. It's very rare to get ones from later zones, and of course prior to minus 600, time travel technology doesn't exist unless it's illegally imported. (Rumour has it that there is such a thing as a class 10 zone even in our own era where the denizens can have timecars, but I've never met anybody from there firsthand.)

Time yuppies are pretty boring after a while. They know the rules, and they're mostly here to experience us, not to let us experience them. As much as we like to think these cons are put on our for our benefit, most people realize who they're really for. At parties, I've heard them call it slumming.

The big buzz at this con was the scheduled appearance of the dean himself that evening. "Lazarus Long," as everybody now called him (though he hated the name) lived in the Santa Cruz mountains and never went to cons unless there were travelers there. Several years back, he had been dying, and just after our zone became class 3, some travelers appeared on his doorstep and rejuvenated him. Now he looks like a teen-ager. Medical technology of that sort isn't supposed to be backsent to a class 3 zone, but apparently if you fill out the right paperwork, you can do it. For Lazarus, it was easy because even hundreds of years up they still treat him like a god. Sort of the way we thought about William Shakespeare once the travelers revealed he had also written all of Sir Francis Bacon's essays.

Time travelers bring Lazarus and Lazarus brings travelers and the rest of us mostly just go along for the ride.

On my way to the bar I passed a bunch of wirehead neofen listening to the Sony-Time-Life-MCA "Golden Age of Rap" CD. The clocks on their disk players were fashionably blinking 12:00 -- 12:00 -- 12:00. You can probably guess my attitude towards neofen, but seeing that CD again reminded me that anything was possible. I started thinking that maybe I could win a Hugo, even if I had to fake it.

One of the known travelers and an E.T. were sitting at the bar with the convention chairman, some writers and about 50 fans "casually" listening in. Half of them were completely in awe and the other half were trying hard not to look completely in awe, but looking it anyway. Aside from the fact that there wasn't a square foot of "casual" standing room around them, I passed by because I've heard it before. I admit it's pretty mind-blowing the first time you see an E.T. from the future, but you soon learn that the time laws don't let them say much more than "phone home," "ouch" and "be good." That, I've seen before.

No, the enigma this time was a man dressed like a ordinary citizen who was really a traveler. Usually, the travelers and their imposters stand out like Dan Quayle at a Mensa meeting. The one across the way sitting with the con chair had the usual garb on under his clothes; a complete, seamless bodysuit with skintight flexible gloves and only the head showing. They don't strictly have to wear such a complete wrap at a hotel that's been sealed and pressurized for a timecon, but most of them are too paranoid to take the risk just for a little added social pleasure.

Ken Sanders is a writer and friend of mine. He has even written time travels stories until people found out how time travel really worked. They're all out of print now, but if you don't mind a good story that's been dated by new events and technology, check out the Library of Tomorrow on the internet some time. Ken's a thin, gangly guy, hyperthyroid condition or something. He was just wandering away from the knot of conversation near the E.T.

I got his attention. "Hey, Gerry!" he said, "Ask me what the secret of good comedy is?"

I sighed. This is an old gag. You ask the question but while you're halfway through saying the word "comedy," the funnyman interrupts by saying, "timing!"

"Not now, Ken. I know this one."

"No you don't."

"OK, what's the secret of good ... com-e-dy?" I was ready for it.

He said nothing and just stared at me, smirking.

"Listen, Ken... I got a thought for you. What could you pay a time traveler if you wanted to buy something from him?" I figured I could confide this tiny bit in Ken. He was a bit of an authority on traveler lore.

"Pay?" he asked, waving around nervously. "That's a tough one. Yeah, yeah, tough. I mean our money is meaningless to 'em, of course, and you can't take anything from here back into the future except information and energy. Only matter that came from the future gets to go back."

"I know that." This was the master rule of time travel. Nothing material could ever go further forward than where (when?) it started -- except at the normal pace -- one second per second, so to speak.

``Right. But a traveler hardly needs energy. His timecar can generate more than our entire planet does right now. And he can pretty much take any information he wants without asking. Zap in, zap out -- there's no way to stop them. And half of it's just historic information to them, anyway.

"But I know of two other things of value you could give a traveler. If you had an object that came from his zone or later, he could take that back with him."

"Yeah," I mused. But I didn't own anything of that sort, or know of anybody who did.

"And there's another thing. Services -- performed here. In a way that's the only thing we ever do 'sell' the travelers. Look at all the work required to seal a con hotel airtight -- provide security and more, all for their entertainment." Ken paused for a moment. "You trying to buy information about the future from a traveler?" Ken was staring wide-eyed. He's a good friend, and all, but he can get excited pretty easily, if you know the type I mean.

"No, no," I reassured. "Just working out a story idea."

That lit up his eyes even more. "Well, I don't think you'll have much luck. No, let's face it. They aren't allowed to interfere to a huge degree in our zone, so they can't want to buy more here than basic steppin' and fetchin'. Is your story set in another zone?" A lot of SF writers set their stories in other zones. It was almost like parallel universe stuff, before we learned there were no parallel universes.

Just then I spotted my "friend" across the foyer. "Uh, No Ken. It's set here. Look, I gotta go. Talk to you later on this, OK?"

I left him looking bemused and headed cautiously over to the traveler. He pulled me to a quiet corner of the bar behind some big ferns. (I think all con hotel bars are fern bars.) Ted E. Payne and the Blue Bears, a blues band consisting of guys in teddy-bear suits wearing black sunglasses, were strumming softly on the stage. I gave Teddy a wave, and he gave me one of those, "Hey, work is work" expressions. At least as far as you can give that expression in a thick bear suit.

"What did you think of it?" the traveler said.

"It was good, sure," I replied, "but I really don't have any way to pay you for it."

"Just good? I'm wasting my time on you if you just thought it was good."

"OK, it was great. The first half, anyway. What's the catch?"

"No catch. And the second half is just as good." He looked around and then placed another book on the table in front of me. "Part Two", it said, seductively.

"I repeat, what's the catch?" I said, trying to look uninterested, though my eyes were drawn against my will to the tantalizing pages.

He told me, and I was torn between deciding he was crazy and wanting to tear out his windpipe. Instead, I just stood up to leave.

"Wait, Gerry!" he called. There could be no pretense now that he wasn't specifically after me. "It's not like that. I've got stuff here that will make her want it -- or not even remember it when it's over. And of course I'll wear protection. Lots of it!"

Like that made it better. I kept walking away. I'd done some things in my day for money, but I was not about to become some sort of inter-temporal pimp for my own wife. I guess Ken was right about it being a service to be performed in our zone.

He tried to grab my arm. It was at this moment that the lobby's expansive floor-to-ceiling window blew out. Nobody ever found out if it was just a weak window that couldn't take the small overpressure of the traveler's oxy system or a sabotage attempt by anti-traveler factions, but the result was the same. The glass exploded outwards, naturally, so nobody inside the con got hit with the sudden rain of flying shards, but that didn't stop the panic.

The panic among the travelers, that is. The hole was far too big for the overpressure system to deal with and in seconds I felt the warm wind from outside brush my face. Our wind. Our air. From our zone.

Now some say the air in California isn't all that great for us to breathe to begin with, but any air from the past is poison to the time travelers. Not right away -- they can breathe it just fine. But more than a few lungfuls of the stuff would be enough to trap them back here for weeks or months until they got all our oxygen out of their system. You see, when their timecars take them forward again, no oxygen, no nothing from our world can go forward with them. And if the oxygen gets bonded into molecules within your body, the rapid disassociation can be a mite fatal. Of course it doesn't hurt us to breathe their air, so that's what they bring in for a con.

Travelers were running left and right for safety rooms or the timecar storage. Some of the more paranoid (or, as it turns out, smarter) ones had pocket air tanks and already had the breathers in their mouths. For the rest, trying to panic, run and hold your breath at the same time wasn't something that they found easy to do.

Two travelers were fighting over an oxy-tank as the warmer outside air swirled around them. And the imposters; well, it became instantly apparent who were the imposters and who weren't. Any writers careful enough to pay attention probably derived a gold mine of information.

Two or three of the more advanced travelers actually levitated above the crowd and zoomed over their heads to the safe rooms. Others were caught behind, and would surely be forced to spend a few unhappy weeks in our time, purging their bodies.

There was probably lots of other technology on display that I wasn't meant to see but that's just as well, because I didn't see it. My partner at the bar and would be rapist of my wife had gone as quickly as the others. And I was staring at the second half of the novel, sitting on that table.

A few hours later, while I was standing -- arrogantly, I admit -- in the line of people trying to get refunds from the convention, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I came close to dislocating the shoulder, trying to turn around and jump three feet in the air at the same time.

It was Ken.

"Timing," he said quietly.

It was a beautiful spring morning, exactly the sort of morning when a cynic like myself expects horrible news, and indeed, I knew that's what I'd receive when I saw not one, but two timecars materialize out of nowhere in my driveway.

If you've never seen it, it's not like Star Trek transporters or Bewitched teleporting. It's more like a sweep, as the car appears as though a three-dimensional stick-on were being applied to the world. In this case, first the bumpers appeared, temporarily seeming to hang in mid-air until the rest of the vehicles swept in, unmoving in space, but clearly moving in some other undefinable way.

Which is all very fascinating, but the emblem of the time police on the sides of the vehicles did a little to discourage my excitement. Two timecops, really just short guys in olive skintight suits and pressure helmets, came up to greet me.

"Gerry White?" they asked, though it was hard to believe they weren't completely sure of where they were and who I was. Time cops do not exactly appear in driveways every day of the week. I identified myself, regardless.

"Mr. White, I'm detective Thula of the Time Travel Enforcement Corps. We understand you published the novel Divergent Paths in this zone, roughly 9 months ago. Is this true?"

What was I going to do, ask to phone my time-lawyer? They were hardly easy to find in my neck of the words. "It's true," I confirmed.

``Mr. White, we have obtained evidence that this novel was infopirated from a class 1 zone by a Mr. William Beckman of minus 532., and then transferred to your possession, after which you published it. There's no point in denying it. Your bad luck was that we did another thorough examination recently of the security tapes of that window breakage. We have him putting the manuscript down and you picking it up, all on camera, sir.

"Unfortunately for us, we can't prosecute you directly for this theft, as you know. We will, however, take steps to ensure that you don't reap additional benefit from it," said Thula.

"What do you mean I know you can't prosecute me?" I really didn't know what they meant.

"The novel was written approximately 7 years back of this zone under the name of Jeremy Blacker," said the detective, rather stone-faced. "Jeremy Blacker is the nom de plume in that zone of a Mr. Gerome White."

Me. I had written the god-damned book, in another life. Some little change in some history now erased had turned me into one of the greatest SF writers of the period. I hadn't been that great in the original history, and I wasn't that great now, but somehow, somewhere, somewhen, the spark had been kindled. And that bastard had tried to sell me my own work. In exchange for my wife. But why?

I cleared my head and looked back up at the officers. "I still don't get it. So it's a great scam on me. But what did he want with my wife?" Once again I assumed they knew everything, which I have now learned is not always the case.

"Your wife?" His fingers moved in thin air as though here were using some sort of sign language and his eyes flitted left and right. "Ah yes. Naomi White. Birth name Naomi Joy Wilson." He paused and wiggled his fingers some more. "Mr. White, in the primary zone Milady Wilson is a great to the 9th grandmother of Mr. Beckman."

"Ziff," said the other time-cop. "Another mother-fucker." He said it as though he didn't realize he had made an atrocious pun. "Just as well, I like it when they're easier to prosecute."

"Mr. White," said detective Thula, "we will be informing the local authorities so you do not benefit further from this crime."

And they did. Soon it was out in all the press and I was the Milli Vanilli of the science fiction scene. The book did get nominated for a Hugo, just as Beckman had promised, but only because the nominations had closed and the ballots were mailed before the news broke.

Apparently there was quite an argument about whether to disqualify me. I was in hiding, and would just as soon they had. One faction argued that the work won the award, and not the author, while some fans actually wrote that while they had opposed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, there were beginning to see some positive value in the concept. However, some anal retentive con committee member -- oops, that's redundant, some particularly anal retentive con committee member -- drove through a resolution that no actual rules had been broken. So it stayed on the ballot.

Hey, I shouldn't be so upset. It finished second. Right after "No award."