The time trains arrived just after Black Tuesday, and they saved us. Investors and humanitarians from the 22nd century dumped cash on the banks, stopped the trusts from crashing any further, and gave us the knowledge and technology to transform our world and rewrite our old destiny.
Their “railroad” sits within a circular, concrete platform at the end of Future Pier. It’s a cage composed of pipes that might be porcelain, except they glimmer with soap-bubble colors. No matter where you stand, the opposite side of the cage seems to vanish off into the distance.
“I can’t wait to meet my future self,” says Billy while I peer into the depths of time and potential.
“From what I understand, the people from down time are only what we might become,” corrects Rudolf, the tedious bore. “It is better to consider them as coming from another country.”
Sure. Another country. A country whose books contain between 45 and 203 years of extra history. There is some confusion about what the future people are doing here, since nothing they do in our version of 1930 will change anything about their own past. Mother says it’s something to do with tax-free import and export.
Rudolf takes out a cigarette and lights it. “Want one?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I say, looking past him at a row of bill-boards filled with futurese gibberish. “Bao’an’s multi-UI-e-cigarettes! Personal Maglev Packs! S. electrogenisis cultures Utility fog! Now in a can!”
“Would you like to buy something from the bazaar?” Asks Rudolf, bland as a butter sandwich.
I look sidewise at him. “No,” I say. “I didn’t come here to shop.”
Rudolf seems to accept that. He either doesn’t know I’m playing him, or else he just doesn’t care. “Your coat and hat are quite fine.”
The coat with the money and the weapon. I don’t know whether that remark was meant to be ominous, polite, or only dull. They all sound the same, coming out of Rudolf.
“It’s my driving outfit,” I answer.
Rudolf’s eyes go unfocused as he considers my response. “And where is your chauffeur?”
“I drove here myself,” I say. Over Mother’s objections, but she was too busy with preunion preparations to really stop me. It’s another reason why today is an excellent day to go camp out in Chicago. After I meet my future relatives, of course. A girl’s got her curiosity.
“You like to drive?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say from the depths of boredom and despair.
“Ah,” he says, staring at me. “Very good.”
My sanity is preserved by a violation of space and time. The soapy white cage emits a gong sound and a blast of cold air. Rainbow light shines through mist that wasn’t there a moment ago and my sense of down tips giddily outward. I stumble, and when I look up, the mist is parting over the smooth snout of a time train’s engine.
Another gong sound, and an oddly-accented voice speaks out of nowhere. “The Centuries Unlimited, now arriving at Black Station.”
The porcelain cage is only about five yards wide, but somehow the whole train fits inside, its silvery length tapering off to some distance you can’t properly call “up” or “down” or even “away.” “Thence,” I suppose.
From just this side of thence-ward, then, passengers begin to disembark.
I put my hand on Billy’s shoulder. “Would you look at that? Wouldn’t it be grand to take a ride on one of those things?”
Billy isn’t listening to me. He’s scanning the faces of passengers. “Hey,” he says, and stands up on his tip-toes to wave. “I think that’s me!”
I expected Billy’s downtime doppelganger to look like my father, but the man who walks up to us is older than my father. This “William” is like an uncle I never had: a pouchy, balding fellow in a funny green and red uniform. He looks tired, but that may just be from the train ride. I wonder how long it took? How many hours are there between 1930 and the 1960s?
“Ruth,” William’s eyes go wide when he sees me. “How young you are. You’re just a girl.” He stands there, staring at me as if either I’m made of glass or he is.
I put out my free hand and yell, “Shake, sit, roll over!”
Billy laughs at the familiar joke, and William’s eyes go misty at a memory decades behind him. He grasps my hand and squeezes. He’s real, all right, a man from the 1960s with a grip as doughy as an accountant’s.
“I’m glad,” William swallows. “I’m so glad to see you again, Ruth. And looking so well. So happy.”
“Happy to meet you, hey.” I say, a bit up in the air. Are those tears in his eyes?
“Is that…” William squints past me, “Rudolf? Rudolf Bleirer?” He looks from the meat magnate’s son to me
and his expression goes from joyfully sad to shocked and mad. “What is he doing here, Ruth?”
Billy gasps at the rudeness of his older self, but Rudolf just blinks.
I guess that leaves me to answer the question. “Rudolf’s here to fetch the other guests,” I say. “He brought his own car.”
“Then I’ll ride with you.” William turns away from Rudolf and winks at Billy. “I’d like to be beside myself.”
Billy giggles and everyone relaxes but me. I’m wondering what happened – will happen? Is fated to happen? – between my little brother and the man Mother wants me to marry. I pat the taser in my pocket and decide not to worry.
“Ah,” says William after a Rudolf-less walk back down Future Pier and through the bazaar. “Our good old Imperial Landau.”
“Imperial” is the right word for it. The car is slow, safe, and eye-wateringly ostentatious. You can see why Mother would like it. Me, though, I want a Duesenberg. Something that flies.
“Hello there, old boy.” William runs his fingertips down the Landau’s hood and smiles sadly at me. “I remember you used to love driving this thing.”
“I still love to drive it.” I glare at Billy, who’s giggling again. “And I’m good at it, too.”
William squints at me before memory dawns. “Oh, that’s right. Our first joyride was in ’29, wasn’t it?” He taps the scratch on the Landau’s right front fender. “It was not to be our last encounter with Mrs. Allais’ mailbox, either.” His avuncular chuckle joins the merriment already underway from Billy. “I remember you told me you’d been driving before, but that was your first time, wasn’t it?”
You’d been driving? The fate of our language was worse than I thought.
I sniff. “I read books on driving.” I unlock the driver’s side door. “And anyhow I’m much better at it now than back in the fall.”
Billy gets into the car. “This is screwy,” he says. “We both remember Mrs. Allais’ mailbox, but you don’t remember this meeting we have today?”
“Your life departed from canonical history the day the time trains came.” William says, and slides in after Billy. “I grew up, went to war, and had all sorts of trouble before I married. Trouble I trust you will avoid.”
Billy quizzes William about his wife and children as the Landau wallows out of its parking spot. I feel like I’m piloting the like the imperial barque of a pharaoh.
“My sons might already be at the house,” says William. “They and the counterparts of my grandchildren from the stations down time from mine: Denise and Old Denise and Very Old Denise…” Another chuckle. “And the Cheryls. Oh my. What characters they are. What characters.”
I picture the time trains and their rail system, with stations at every generation between now and 2132. “How about people from the end of the line?” I ask.
“The Present, you mean? Yes,” says William. “I believe both Very Very Old Kisha and Emulated Gavrail have sent in their RSVPs.”
“Funny names they have down in the future,” says Billy.
“My boy, you don’t know the half of it,” says William. “Not the half of it.”
I focus on steering this land-yacht. There’s a certain type who lets this sort of “canonical history” get to him. The kind of guy who digs into what would have happened if the time trains had never come: the Great Depression, World War Two, and all. I think it’s a morbid and pointless obsession. Whatever happens, now that we’ve got a pipeline to the future, it’ll be a lot stranger than any old war.
We sail in stately sloth through the bazaar and into the city proper. Ranks of windows line the gray faces of skyscrapers. Cars run up and down boulevards as wide as all our possibilities. The wind reaches in through the open window and plays with my hair as I press on the accelerator.
“How different your Chicago is from mine,” says William. “So much smaller! But, I think, more hopeful?”
“Who cares about the dumb old city?” says Billy. “What will my kids be like?”
William harrumphs. “In fact, we don’t know anything about your potential children, Billy, as I’ve been saying.”
“I mean your kids.”
“Ah. Elmo and Ignacio, you mean. Why, they became members of the government of the Nuclear Commons. That’s my country.”
“The Nucle-what? That’s not a real country,” says Billy.
“well, for me, the time trains arrived in 1962. That was five years ago, and a great deal has changed since then,” says William.
William tells Billy about “force shields,” and “the power of the atom,” and “the value of labor,” but I care less about the politics of William’s 1960s station than the people I can see here on the streets of Chicago, doing their business and living their lives. Enjoying their freedom.
The traffic tugs me as if I were swimming in a river before it becomes a waterfall. Not that I’ve ever swum in a river, or even seen a waterfall. All the more reason to fling myself into this one.
“It’s my turn now,” I say.
“Beg pardon?” asks William.
“I mean,” I stammer, “how about my future, hey?”
William is silent for just a little too long, and when he speaks, it isn’t to answer my question.
“Ruth, I’m planning to ask your mother to let you come work with me. We need skilled young people in the Nuclear Commons.”
I consider the offer as I swerve around some dope in a Studebaker. Once I’m back in the clear, I decide I would prefer to have a little fun before I’m passed from one minder to another.
“Mother won’t agree to anything like that.” It’s a good excuse, and it happens to be true.
“I’ll tell your mother that life in my station, that is to say, my historical era, is much better than here,” William declares. “We have more and safer food, better medicine, machines that wash your clothes…”
What do I look like, a servant? “How about flying cars?” I ask.
“Yes, in fact,” says William. “We import maglev cars from stations further down time, but I’m personally in favor of field-supported vehicles, which we can produce locally.”
I stopped listening at the word “yes.” “They dear, these flying cars?” I ask.
“Well,” says William. “A maglev car would cost about as much as however much you paid for this Landau, I suppose.”
“Wow,” says Billy. “Flying cars! Imagine that, Ruth!”
I do. I imagine the skies over Chicago filled with flying cars, with me in the fastest one.
“Ah, yes,” says William. “My sister used to love flying, too.”
As much as it tickles me to hear little-kid slang like ‘love flying’ coming out of this old bird’s mouth, I don’t like the melancholy in William’s voice. “You mean I don’t love to fly any more in the future?”
“Not you,” he says, too quickly. “Your canonical counterpart. She…she stopped flying, yes.”
“Why?” I ask, worried. It would be one thing to never get the chance to fly. But to start and then stop?
“William?” says Billy as the old man’s silence stretches.
William sighs. “I will tell you, Ruth. Not now, though. Not here.”
“Nobody here in the car but us,” I say.
“I promised Mother she gets to hear the future news first.”
The way he says “Mother,” I know I can’t change William’s mind.
“Then promise me,” I say. “After you talk with Mother, you’ll come find me and you’ll tell me my fate.”
“Not your fate, Ruth,” he says and I hear in his tone, I hope. “But I promise I will tell you what happened to your counterpart. In good time.”
“‘Good time,'” I say. “Cute.”
William doesn’t laugh.