“If you’re darker than warm beige we don’t recommend using this unit to visit the past prior to 2150. Only go into the recent past, or into the future.” The salesbot made a point of making eye contact with me as it highlighted that shade on the color chart. “Of course, if you choose one of the upgraded holo-projecting units, then you can visit any time you like; they are guaranteed to give the best appearance for any period.”
I idly scrolled through the brochure on the screen in front of me to the data about the holo units. Supposedly the whole family could see the French Revolution with no risk. Realistically the technology just wasn’t likely to work that well at such a distance. The mini-holos were at their best in controlled environments, and angry mobs in a revolution were anything but stable.
Perversely angry that they would lie about something so mundane, I said, “I’ve heard stories of glitches that made some women resemble Marie Antoinette. Time-share travel to be nearly beheaded — or burned at the stake — just doesn’t sound like fun to me.”
“Those are just stories…”
“If you get cut up, someone pops you into a new chassis. We don’t have that option. Little Makayla gets beheaded and all her parents get is some credits and a coffin.”
Before the bot could spin up a better response to my interruptions, someone behind me asked, “Can we try them out? Make sure they’re safe?”
There’s always one, someone who falls for the bait and asks the question for me. From the sound of the voice, she was probably a new mom.
The bot pretended to pace by rolling itself back and forth; clearly the designer was human. Or a bored AI that built this unit to pass one of its early task tests. We were supposed to feel like it was thinking, instead of getting permission to drop bigger bait. “I am authorized to allow an hour for each of you. But only in the regular units. You’ll have to choose wisely; they are programmed to return you at 59 minutes, 59 seconds exactly.”
The screen in front of me changed to a waiver and consent matrix. I skimmed it, and leaned forward so it could scan my retina and verify my identity. As soon as we were done, the units rose from slots inside the table. While some of the others were getting guidance from the bot, I entered my date and location range and pressed send. I had a crossroads to get to, and no time to waste on whether or not my skin shade would be safe there.
“You’re late,” a small bronze woman with a sprinkle of dark brown freckles on her nose snapped at me. Although we never used names, we routinely exchanged insults. “Some of us are serious about this.”
I checked my internal chronometer. “I am precisely on time. You got here early. Again. Some of us can follow instructions.”
“Fight later. Learn now.” The white-haired woman who waited for us had never told me her real name. Sometimes she was Tituba, wearing the clothing of an enslaved woman in 1690 and bearing the marks of whatever outrage Tituba had borne. Sometimes she was someone or something else, but she was always distinctly herself no matter what face she wore. We didn’t ask, and she didn’t explain.
Each trip was a choice we made, a step further into honoring a deal that had been made for us, by one of our ancestors at some point before we were born. Technically honoring it was also our choice, but only some of us knew who made the deal, and when. Most of us only had obscure family lore, and that nagging feeling of untapped power to drive us into the first meeting. It pulled, we went, and well… arriving early or late didn’t matter to the white-haired woman. She showed up when she was ready, did what was necessary, and left.
In my head I called her Teacher, though I hesitated to speak even that name aloud.
Just being near Teacher made my power buzz under my skin. She reached out, brushed a finger over my cheek. “You have been practicing. A lot.”
“My mother taught me as much as she could when she understood what I was… what I might become.”
“Hmm.” She walked over to Freckles, and I realized abruptly that there were just two of us waiting this time. Some of the others must have graduated. Or failed so completely that one of their descendants might have to honor the contract. In the moonlight, so much brighter than at home, Teacher always looked subtly more real than me or Freckles. “I do not like you. No one likes you. No one will like you.”
“I like me. That’s enough.” The answer and the response were a ritual that I didn’t understand, but they always seemed to unlock something inside Freckles. Her face relaxed, the ever-present frown softening into serenity.
“This will be our last meeting. You have both done what was necessary, and now so will I.” She stood between us, sketched a shape in the air over Freckles’ head, and I felt the ground under me shift. Freckles disappeared, everything disappeared, and I was alone in a soft black space between times. Between realities. I didn’t know when I was, but for the first time I knew what I was becoming. I could feel it even if I could not name it.
I held my hands out in front of me, and thought of the light I wanted to see. It lit my hands, and then my whole body. Teacher’s face hung in front of me like the moon we had just left behind.
“Go where you wish, do what feels necessary. Just remember. The deals you make… fair terms, firm consequences. You earned this, and so must they.” She stepped away from my reality, as I settled into my new self. I was still lush. Dark, round, and ripe with promise, but now instead of a power I could feel but not truly wield, anything was possible.
There was no Devil at the crossroads to grant Robert Johnson power, no Devil to be outwitted either. There was just us. We have been everywhere, will be every…when, because the old ways are sometimes the only ways.
I felt the remnants of the time-travel unit tug at me. Sidestepping time had done something to it, maybe made it better, maybe driven the proto-AI insane. I could destroy it and make my own way, or I could follow the signal back to my own time. Step into a world where almost anything was possible, and make everything possible.
For the right price.