“I’m sorry, Amaranth Q, your travel application is denied,” said the TTA’s customer-service robot. Following some pathway in its neurocybernetic map, the robot added, “You understand the Time Travel Authority’s decision is final?”
“Yes,” said Amaranth.
Her application had been necessarily vague, and they didn’t trust her to follow the rules once she got into the past. She didn’t blame them. They were right not to. But some things were more important than bureaucratic rules.
Leaving the Federal Office Building, she walked quickly through the crowded Mariana Trench City center, then down damp, twisted backstreets to the shadowy neighborhood known as Abyssal Alley. Here, months ago, anticipating TTA rejection, she’d found the time-travel black market, a moldy hallway, and the wizened dealer. Now, as he smiled at her, the diamonds in his long white teeth were the brightest objects in the room.
“You’re back,” he said.
“Obviously,” she said.
“Ah, well, they mostly only allow scientists. Do you have the money?”
She gave it to him.
The dealer counted, then gazed at her.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
He was unaccountably having some qualms about this aging woman, with her strings of beads and hand-woven shawls. She was certainly not one of the sex-travelers he was accustomed to dealing with. What was she up to?
“Of course I’m sure,” she said.
The dealer shrugged. “I can give you five hours,” he reminded her, “back in your former self.”
“You’re not going to try to change anything.”
“Of course not,” Amaranth lied.
“Because you need one of the Class Six-A Titanium licenses for that,” said the dealer. “Otherwise, capital offense, laser lobotomy, and so on.”
“I know,” said Amaranth.
“Anyway I hear the alternatives function is becoming unstable. There’ve been rumors that the forward random-skip phenomenon is happening a lot lately, unpredictable perturbations, they say. I hear even the hot-shot cyberchrono researchers are having trouble getting Six-ATs.”
“Whatever,” said Amaranth. “I’m not changing anything, remember?”
“Yes, of course,” said the dealer. He grinned uneasily. The tooth jewelry twinkled.
“Not that it’s any of my business what my customers do,” he added.
“No,” said Amaranth, “it isn’t.”
On Research Station Titan 6 near Saturn, astrodemolitions supervisor Juliette Q, M.S. (nuclear engineering), Ph.D. (dual: mechanical engineering and astrophysics) was worried about her mother.
“I think she’s losing it,” she said to the technical systems manager. “She’s been talking a lot of obsessive nonsense lately, and now in the last few days I haven’t even been able to get in touch with her.”
“Well,” he said, “not much you can do from here.”
“I could take a leave,” said Juliette.
“No, you can’t. Your threat object is almost in range, and our window’s within a month and won’t last more than a few days. You’ve got to be here.”
“That monster is hardly ‘mine’,” Juliette said.
“Well you found it. But whoever it belongs to, we’d better blow the sucker off its trajectory, or senility will be the least of your mother’s worries. The way it’s going right now, even Earth’s trench cities won’t be safe this time.”
“There are other demolitionists on the project,” Juliette pointed out.
“Not with your particular combination of abilities for dealing with superTOs. It’s a tricky anomalous fat bastard, the biggest we’ve seen. Wake up, Jules. Remember what matters.”
Juliette sighed. “You’re right.”
She pulled off her lab coat.
“I’ll be back. Right now I’m late for my dietary treatments,” she said.
“How’s that progressing?” the techsys manager asked, eyeing her overabundant figure.
“Eighteen kilos to go,” she said, sighing again, “and then I have to keep it off.”
“We love you the way you are, you know.”
“Right,” said Juliette, walking to the door.
“How much trouble can your mom get into, at her age?” he asked.
Amaranth awoke in a city park 34 years in the past, pregnant, with a headache and dry heaves. Morning sickness, or the effect of the time jump, or a little bit of both, she thought. She marked the transit spot with her locator. The dealer lived up to his reputation: the genetics clinic was just around the corner.
Amaranth had always been the Earth-Mother, spiritual type who thought science was soulless. In just this one thing, though, she shouldn’t have rejected the tools of technology; she should have used them, for her sake and her daughter Juliette’s. Well, she was here to remedy that situation.
In the clinic, having taken care of the necessary paperwork and evaluated the general health of mother and child, technicians brought up the embryo’s genetic profile from their database. On the screen, the obesity gene sequences were highlighted in red. After that, it was easy.
“Good to have that taken care of, isn’t it? I wish we could engineer everything as quick as this,” said a technician, 3 hours later.
“Her father’s hefty,” said Amaranth.
“I was wondering,” said the technician. “Well, we see it with your generation. SlimGen didn’t have a good handle on the prenatal correction until maybe 15 years ago. Of course the bureaucrats slowed everything down, piling on the regulations, looking for trouble with correlated consequence occurrences, God know what, but the company finally worked out those issues.”
“They used to call it the thrifty gene,’ said Amaranth.
“I’ve heard that,” agreed the technician.
“People who had it were good at storing fat and surviving famines.”
“Well, we don’t need it nowadays, do we?” said the technician.
She patted Amaranth on the shoulder.
“Just rest for a while, then on your way, and your little girl will have the cutest figure. Have you got someone to take you home?”
“I live close,” said Amaranth, “I can walk.”
It was even true, in a way. Here on the Northeast Side of M-Trench City, at this stage of their lives, she and her husband had an apartment in a mid-income building just a few blocks from the clinic. She was briefly tempted to go peek at him alive, an exuberant big man who would die too young. But no. She would leave that part of the past alone. Better to just look forward now.
Waiting for the jump back, Amaranth lay happily in the grass and thought about her daughter. Due to be born in 8 months, a slim, willowy Juliette would be assured of having romance in her life and, in the fullness of time, a baby, and Amaranth would have a grandchild. Maybe several. A boy and a girl would be nice. The locator gave a warning squeak, and Amaranth sat up, ready to return.
“I don’t get it,” said the station chief. “With the demo window opening next week, we need all hands on deck. What’s happened to you?”
“No clue,” said Juliette.
The chief noticed that Juliette’s clothes hung loosely about her, as if they belonged to a much broader person.
“Are you all right?” the chief asked. “Eating okay? They tell me you’ve been worried about your mother.”
Juliette Q smiled.
“I’m eating lots, feel great! AND I’ve lost 12 kilos in the last 3 weeks. Hey, I’m planning to join the NEO marathon team. I figure I’ll be ready for the next cross-station half-marathon run.”
“But as of 10 days or so ago you’ve stopped doing your job,” the chief said. “Your manager is quite concerned, to say the least.”
“I’d love to keep working,” said Juliette. “I’d absolutely love to, boss, only you know like I don’t remember anything. Can’t even figure out the damn equipment – all those crazy interfaces! The gang is being sweet, showing me what buttons to push, but…”
Since her intellectual decline began, Juliette had been thoroughly examined by station physicians. Their assessment was that she was perfectly healthy. But it was clear that she no longer understood basic concepts in mechanics or physics, much less the complexities of quantum computing or astrodemolitions. As an afterthought, her IQ was tested. It was 88.
“It’s as if about 40% of her brain function has been turned off,” one of the docs had commented during an urgent meeting with the chief of station and senior managers.
“We still see the areas lighting up, but the activity doesn’t seem to go anywhere,” added another specialist.
“In fact, yeah, it all lights up but it’s somehow… dimmed,” said a neurophysiologist. “I was wondering, though,” she went on, “has JQ had any genotoxic exposures lately? Something not in her records?”
“Everything’s in the records,” the chief had replied. “Why?”
“I’m not sure,” the neurophysiologist had said. “No reason, I guess. Just wondering.”
When Juliette left his office, the station chief contacted the technical systems manager.
“It’s weird,” said the manager. “She’s looking so damn good, better than she ever has. Kind of hot, frankly.”
“Spare me your animal urges,” said the station chief. “Can we destroy this STO without her?”
“What are the odds?”
The manager considered. “Fifty-50,” he said finally, “being optimistic.”
“OK,” sighed the chief, and prepared an urgent transmission to Earth.
The mammoth asteroid hurtled through space.
In her room on Research Station Titan 6 Juliette Q applied a curling wand to her hair and wondered if the techsys manager, who had fabulous buns, might ask her out. She’d caught him looking at her legs this morning.
In Mariana Trench City, Amaranth Q began pricing cribs for her future grandchild.
Annie Osborne lives in Arizona with her husband. She enjoys reading, writing, and editing. She recently looked at the Pleiades cluster through binoculars and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.