Book: The Time Traveler's Almanac

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Next: Harry Turtledove/Twenty-One, Counting Up

3 RMS, GOOD VIEW

Karen Haber

Karen Haber is an American writer who has published nine novels, including Star Trek Voyager: Bless the Beasts. She is also the coauthor of The Science of the X-Men and an art critic and historian. Her short fiction has been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and many others. This story was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1990.

“Apartment for rent,” said the net ad. “3 rms, gd view. Potrero Hill area, $1200 a month, utilities pd.”

It sounded like a dream. Every San Francisco apartment I had seen in the last six months had waiting lists for their waiting lists.

“Southern exp. Pets OK.”

Better and better.

Then I found the catch. The apartment was available, all right. In 1968.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not one of those with a temporal bias. And God knows, I’ve always wanted to live in San Francisco.

I first came north in ’07 on a family expedition to the Retro-Pan-Pacific Exposition. The fair was fun, but what I loved even better was San Francisco: the sunswept hillsides, the streets lined with bright flower boxes, the digitalized ding-a-ling of the streetcar bells floating in the cool air, the fog creeping in at dusk. Heaven, especially after thirteen summers spent baking in the San Fernando Valley. I vowed to come back.

It took me seventeen years and a divorce, but I did it. Right after I graduated from Boalt and passed the bar.

Unfortunately, housing was tight – in fact, strangulated. The city had instituted severe building restrictions back in ’03 and got what it asked for: all residential construction not only stopped but vanished, gone eastward to the greener pastures of Contra Costa County.

I got on the waiting list of every real estate agent in the Bay Area, but the best digs I would find was a studio apartment – more like a large walk-in closet with plumbing – in a renovated duplex in Yuba City. Add on a three-hour commute to my job in San Francisco’s financial district, and we’re not exactly talking about positive quality of life.

So when I saw the net ad, I jumped. And stopped in midair. As I said, I have no temporal biases. But I’m not one of those sentimental history nuts just dying to travel back to the Crucifixion, either. I like real time just fine, thank you. Always have. It’s a peculiar trait, considering my family.

My grandmother lives in 1962, and has for the last ten years. She said it was the last time that America believed in itself as a country. And it’s safe. She likes the peace and quiet of the pre-computer era. “Loosen up, Chrissy,” she said to me before she left. “You should be more flexible. There’s nothing wrong with living in the past.”

My brother lives in 1997 where he’s pierced his nose, lip, eyebrows, and had his scalp tattooed in concentric circles of red and black. Every now and then I get a note from him through e-mail: “Come visit. We’ll hit the clubs. Don’t you ever take a vacation? I thought girls wanted to have fun.”

As for Mom, well, she likes 1984. But then, she always did have an odd sense of humor.

Pardon me if I like realtime best. I’ve always had my feet planted firmly in the present. Practical, sturdy Christine. In the lofty hierarchy of Mount Olympus, I’d be placed just to the left of Zeus in the marble frieze, in the Athena position. Yes, I even have the gray eyes and brown hair to go with the no-nonsense attitude. I’m tall and muscular, as befits your basic warrior goddess/business attorney type. My stature is useful, too – who wants a lawyer who doesn’t look intimidating?

And I’ve never wanted to go backward. We all remember the first reports of time-travel glitches. Shari, one of my prelaw classmates at Berkeley, wanted to spend her Christmas break in the village where her French great-great-great-grandmother lived. But a power surge from Sacramento sent her to the fourteenth century instead. Talk about your bad neighborhoods. If she hadn’t gotten her shots before she left – complaining all the way – she’d probably have come back sporting buboes the size and color of rotten nectarines.

After Shari’s brush with the Black Death, I told myself I was immune to the allure of era-hopping. I ignored the net ads for Grand Tours: the Crucifixion and sack of Rome package, $1,598. Dark Ages through the Enlightenment, two weeks for $2,100, all meals and tips included. (These packages are especially popular with the Japanese, who have become time-travel junkies. And why not? They can go away and come back without losing any realtime at work.)

Even when the Koreans made portable transport units for home or office, I shrugged and stuck by realtime. But when I saw the listing in the paper, I looked around the stucco walls of my apartment/cell and threw all my sturdy, practical notions to the wind. An apartment on Potrero Hill? In a nanosecond, Pallas Athena transmuted into impulsive Mercury.

*   *   *

My hands trembled with excitement and impatience as I sent my credit history to Jerry Raskin, the real estate agent listed on the ad. Almost immediately I received an appointment to view the apartment. This Raskin sure didn’t waste any time.

We met at his office in the Tenderloin. He was a short man, barely reaching my shoulder, with thinning dark hair and a doughy nose that looked like a half-baked biscuit. A matte black Mitsubishi temp transport unit sat behind his desk. I stared at it uneasily.

“Want to look over the premises?” he asked. He gestured toward the unit.

“Uh, yes. Of course.” I took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold of the transport.

There was a sudden fragmentation of color, of sound. I was in a high white space, falling. I was stepping into an apartment on Potrero Hill, shaking my head in wonder.

Even before the shimmering transport effect had diminished, Jerry had launched into his sales pitch. “It’s a gem,” he said proudly. “I hardly ever get this kind of listing.” He flicked an invisible piece of lint from the shoulder of his green silk suit. “Once every five years.”

It was perfect. Big sunny rooms paneled in pine, full of light, ready for plants. Hardwood floors. There was even a little balcony off the bedroom where I could watch the fog drift in over Twin Peaks in the summer afternoons.

All wound up and oblivious to my rapture, Raskin rattled on. “You can install a transport unit in the closet for your morning and evening commute to realtime. It’s a steal. What’s your rail commute cost from Yuba City?”

I didn’t need much convincing. “I’ll take it.”

“Two year lease,” he said. “Sign here.” Then he brandished an additional piece of paper. “This too.”

“What is it?” I was Pallas Athena again, staring down suspiciously onto the sweaty center of his bald spot. “If this is a pet restriction clause, I’m going to protest. Your ad didn’t say anything about it. I’ve got a cat.” I didn’t bother to mention that I kept MacHeath at work – there was more room for him there than at home. But wherever – and whenever – I went, he went.

“Sure, sure,” Raskin said. “You can keep your kitty as long as you pay a deposit. This is just your standard noninterference contract.”

“Noninterference contract?”

He looked at me like I was stupid. It rarely happens. When it does, I don’t like it.

“You know,” he said, and recited in a sing-song voice: “Don’t change the past or the past will change you. The time laws. You lawyers understand this kind of thing. You, and you alone, are responsible for any dislocation of past events, persons or things, et cetera, et cetera. Read the small print and sign.”

*   *   *

A sudden chill teased my upper vertebrae. Noninterference? Well, why would I interfere with the past? The morning sunlight streamed in through the big window in the front room. High clouds scudded over the hillside. I shook off the shivers and signed.

A week later, I took up residence, hanging my tiny collection of photos, putting down rugs, and glorying in my privacy. MacHeath didn’t care much for the transport effect but he approved of his new improved situation. After sniffing every corner of the place, he made an appointment with the sun and spent the rest of the day following it from window to window.

Life’s pendulum swung me between work and home, uptime and downtime, in an easy arc. Thanks to the transport I could leave the house at any time of day and return a moment later. This made for a great deal of quality time, spent snuggled up with MacHeath on the red corduroy sofa, and on my own in the heart of a smaller, cozier city. I wandered gratefully along the waterfront, bought sourdough bread and lingered over coffee in North Beach jazz clubs. Everywhere was color and life and music: garish psychedelic posters printed in what I think were called Day-Glo inks, announcing musical groups with odd names like the Jackson’s Airplane. Shaggy-haired, brightly dressed, childishly friendly people piled in casual groups on the street, in buses, and in the old houses lining Haight Street and Ashbury. I fell in love with the past – at least with San Francisco’s past.

Uptime, at work, they asked me how I could stand to watch history go by without comment.

“Don’t you ever want to warn somebody?” said Bill Hawthorne, the senior partner. “Don’t you ever want to call up Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy and say, ‘Stay away from hotel balconies,’ or ‘Don’t go in the kitchen’?”

“Shame on you, Bill,” I said. “You know that’s against the law.”

In fact, I watched, agog, as the alarming parade of assassinations and demonstrations took place. History on the hoof. I began to see why people got hooked on the past. It’s a much realer form of video.

And during the year I lived in 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. And somebody moved into the downstairs apartment.

It had remained empty for so long that I’d begun to think of it as part of my domain. Oh, I knew that some uptime renter would probably appear one morning, strangely dressed, keeping to him or herself. I’d seen one or two folks in the neighborhood whom I suspected of being residential refugees from uptime like me, but I had avoided them, and they, me. We all played the game with discretion.

*   *   *

I was out of town, uptime, when the people downstairs moved in. The first sign I had of their presence was the primal beat of rock music reverberating through my lovingly stained floorboards, occasionally punctuated by the high manic whine of amplified electric guitars. Boom-boom-bah. Boom-boom-bah. For five hours I considered various legal strategies showing just cause for murder. Sorry, Your Honor, but it was self-defense. Their music made me psychotic and if I hadn’t stopped it, the entire neighborhood would have been at risk and all of history would have been changed so I had to do it, don’t you see?

About three in the morning, somebody turned off the music.

The next day, as I was blearily putting out my garbage, I met my neighbor. He was sitting in the backyard, smoking a sweet-smelling cigarette. The pungent smoke curled up above his head in lazy circles. Long wavy blond hair fell to the middle of his back. He was wearing jeans and a brown suede vest but aside from that his interest in clothing seemed minimal. His toenails were black with grime.

“Name’s Duffy,” he said. He jerked his head at a hefty woman in a long muslin skirt and peasant blouse who stood in the doorway, smiling spacily at me. “That’s Parvati.” Parvati’s strawberry-blond hair was gathered into two fat braids that fell past her knees. She was wearing metal-rimmed eyeglasses whose lenses flashed prismatic reflections on the grass. I stared, fascinated. I’d forgotten that in this era people used external devices to correct their vision.

The head jerked again, this time toward an urchin with a dirty face, stringy blond hair, and big blue eyes. “Our kid, Rainbow.”

Rainbow wiped her nose against the back of her hand and stared at me. All three of them stared at me, at my burr haircut, severe business suit, dark shoes, glossy briefcase. I realized that, to my new hippie neighbors, I must have looked like some kind of strange male impersonator.

“Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” I began to climb the stairs to my apartment.

“Far out,” Duffy said. He was staring at my briefcase. “You some kind of secretary or actress or something?”

“Something.” I was through my door and had closed it behind me before he could ask anything else.

*   *   *

Weekends I took long walks through Golden Gate Park. It was green, beautiful, and filled with people who were probably Duffy’s relatives.

“Peace,” they said, and I nodded.

“Love.”

I smiled.

“Could you lay a little bread on me, please?”

I shook my head and walked away, confused – did I look like a baker?

For trips to the grocery store I bought a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle – the classic – with a dented purple fender, third-hand, and after some abrupt bucking rides down the block, mastered the quaint antique stick shift and clutch.

As for clothing, well, I found used jeans in the neighborhood Army-Navy store and a loose-fitting top of muslin tie-dyed pink and red. The shirt itched a bit when I wore it and turned my underwear gray-pink in the washer, but it was good camouflage. With a red bandana wrapped around my head to cover my short hair, I almost managed to look inconspicuous.

I quickly learned my neighbors’ schedule: they stayed up all night vibrating my apartment with their music and slept all day.

Apparently Rainbow didn’t go to school. Once, I glanced out my window to see her staring up hungrily at my place. I tried not to see her. I really tried.

One night, late, as the guitars whined and I was about to switch on my noise dampers, there was a knock at the door.

“Who is it?”

“Duffy.”

I opened the door a crack. “What’s up?”

Lids at half-mast, he peered at me and smiled muzzily. “Thought you might want to come to a party.” He smiled muzzily.

“No thanks. I need my sleep.”

“C’mon, don’t be such a hard lady,” he said. “Parvati’s gone to see her folks. Just you ’n me.”

I almost laughed. Men rarely looked at me the way he was looking at me now. While I might have welcomed it from one or two of the attorneys I knew in realtime, I was not interested in this dirty, lazy, antediluvian jerk.

“That’s too small a party for me. No thanks.”

“Hey, Parvati won’t mind. Whatever goes down is cool with her.”

“Congratulations. Hope she knows a good lawyer when things start to warm up.” I shut the door.

The apartment was blissfully quiet after that – in fact, I didn’t hear Duffy’s music for at least a week. Didn’t see him or Rainbow, or any of their friends except for once, when I was putting out the garbage, Rainbow appeared at the front window, pressed her little hands against the pane, and stared out at me. I smiled. She didn’t smile back. When she turned to walk away, I saw that her hands had left dirty smudges on the glass.

*   *   *

I spent a week in realtime on an important case, and when I got back, discovered that I had new neighbors.

Duffy and his family were gone. In their place were two skinny guys in their twenties with long dark hair, beards, and the same interest in the same kind of loud guitar music. They barely acknowledged my presence, which was fine.

One night, late, after my noise dampers had cycled and shut down, I heard a child crying. It was the high, keening, hopeless sound of one who doesn’t expect to be comforted. The kind of sound no child should ever have to make, any time or place.

I got out of bed, listened, heard it again, opened the front door. Then I couldn’t hear it any more. The night was silent save for the creaking floorboards under my feet. Was I imagining things?

MacHeath yawned elaborately as I got back into bed and made a sleepy inquisitive sound.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Bad dream.”

The next night I heard it again – the sound of a child crying hopelessly, long after everybody else in the world was asleep.

Two days later, I saw her.

Rainbow was standing in the backyard, weaving back and forth.

Her eyes were half-closed as though she were stoned.

I took a step toward her. “Honey, are you all right?”

She opened her eyes. The pupils were massive, almost engulfing the blue irises.

“Rainbow, where’s your mommy?”

“Mommy?” She looked at me, her face crumpled into tears, and she ran into the house.

I didn’t hear the crying again after that.

But I did meet one of Rainbow’s babysitters. He was waiting outside one morning as I brought out the garbage.

“Hey, sister.”

I ignored him, thinking about torts, about deed restrictions. About Rainbow.

Suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder. “Hey. You deaf?” Another hand attached itself to my ass.

I leaned toward him. He came closer. I grabbed his arm and, ducking, pulled hard. He landed headfirst, sprawled among the garbage cans. For a moment, I thought that I’d killed him. Then he groaned and rolled over onto his side. He lay there, stunned, peering up at me.

“Hands off,” I said, enunciating carefully. “I don’t know you. I don’t want to.” I kicked the can beside his head to emphasize the point. He winced and nodded.

After that, he left me alone. But I came home one night to find that the door to my apartment had been vandalized: somebody had tried to force the lock. Good thing I’d brought a security sealer from uptime and installed it. Whoever had attempted the deed had contented themselves with carving the word “bitch” into the wood just above the doorknob.

Don’t you forget it.

I left the graffito exactly where it was.

The crying at night resumed. I began to wonder if I should call somebody. But who? Where were Duffy and Parvati? Were they really even her parents? And what kind of child welfare agencies were available in the 1960s in San Francisco? Could Rainbow hope for anything better than what she had right now? Besides, the time laws were explicit: No interference.

I didn’t know what to do, so I waited. She who hesitates, loses.

*   *   *

I transported home one night at eleven o’clock into a dark smoke-filled apartment. Fire. Where? I couldn’t find the source. I felt the floor – hot, too hot. No time to waste. I called the fire department, grabbed MacHeath, and was halfway out the door before I remembered the transport unit. Cursing, I disconnected it, threw it into my briefcase, and ran down the stairs, arms full of squirming orange cat.

By the time I got to the pavement, the lower apartment was completely engulfed, the flames roaring. As the upper story caught I watched the flames dance up the curtains and part my front window. Imagined them licking and consuming my rugs, quilts, clothing. My life. I could hear the deafening screams of sirens as fire trucks raced down the street.

Lights came on in houses up and down the block and sleepy faces peered through windows, through open doors. Tears – from smoke or fear, I don’t know which – ran down my face to soak MacHeath’s fur. He struggled furiously, trying to get away from the strange sounds, the people, the dark. Finally I stowed him in my Beetle.

Firemen kicked in the door downstairs and played water from a rubber hose into the inferno. It might have all been interestingly antique if it hadn’t been happening to me.

Those firemen did good work. Within an hour the flames had subsided. The charred timbers sent plumes of smoke high into the air, but the fire was dead.

Shivering, I watched as the bodies were carried out: blackened beyond recognition, more like burned logs than people. Nine corpses, nine flaking, reeking corpses. And one more, smaller than the rest. The last to be brought out. Rainbow.

“Found her by the back window.” The fireman’s face was blackened, his voice hoarse. “I think she was trying to open it and get out. But the damned thing was painted shut.” Gently he set her down. “Jesus, I’ve got two at home around her age. Damned shame.”

“Yeah.” I didn’t trust myself to say more. Quickly as I could, I turned around and got out of there. I spent the night at a neighbor’s house. The next morning, I waited until my Good Samaritan had left for work at the shipyards, then I plugged in the transport, set it for autoretrieve, and took MacHeath back to realtime, right into Jerry Raskin’s office.

*   *   *

“You son of a bitch!” I grabbed him by the lapel of his cheap silver coat. “You knew that place was going to burn down when you rented it to me.”

“What?” He stared at my soot-stained face and there was real fear in his eyes. “I had no idea. Chrissy, you’ve got to believe me.”

I shook him until his teeth chattered. “You are required by law to do a time sweep in order to alert tenants to potential dangers.”

“I did. I did. The records came up clean. The former owner must have lied to the insurance company.”

“Reckless endangerment,” I said. “How does that sound, for starters? How would you like to be charged with a felony?”

Raskin’s eyes were huge with terror now. I put him down and he backed away from me until the desk separated us. “Now let’s just calm down,” he said. “You look okay to me. You got out all right, didn’t you? I’ll refund your deposit. I swear, I didn’t know.”

I decided not to waste my energy. Raskin wasn’t worth it. Back I went to Yuba City. Found a studio apartment that almost had room for me and MacHeath. Tried to forget.

By day it was easy. San Francisco put on her best show for me: The Golden Gate Bridge glistened in the sunlight. The bay was dotted by solar-powered sailboats. The cable cars’ recorded bells rang. The scent of coffee and chocolate wafted up from the power-blowers installed at Ghiradelli Square. My work was blessedly absorbing.

But at night my dreams were filled with little girls with dirty faces and large blue eyes, terrified little girls with their hands and faces pressed against a wall of unyielding glass as flames raced up behind them.

“Help,” they cried. “Help me, Mommy!”

“Help me, Daddy!”

“Help me, Christine!”

*   *   *

On my way to work one morning, I glanced through the window as we pulled into Powell Station. Another train had come in on the parallel track, and in it a small girl with big blue eyes stared at me with great seriousness. Her hands were pressed against the window. I looked down at my net paper. When I looked up again, she was gone. But two small handprints smudged the glass where she had been.

That night I went back.

I went back to 1968 and stood outside the house and watched as the fire gained strength. Watched, paralyzed, as choking smoke billowed upward. Saw a woman – me – peer out the upstairs window with fierce, frightened eyes as she held an orange cat in her arms. Was that severe face really mine? I didn’t have time to wonder.

I saw a flash at the downstairs window. A small face, eyes huge. Rainbow, struggling with the latch. The smoke filled the room behind her. She beat against the window, coughing.

I moved, then. Picked up a rock.

The fire engines howled in the distance.

I saw myself coming down the stairs and darted to the side, out of sight, quickly, quickly, until I knew that I was putting MacHeath in the car with my back to the house.

Awkwardly, then, I changed history. Smashed the window. Reached through jagged glass that scratched my hands and arms, grabbed the child, and pulled her through. The flames chased her right up to the edge of the sill, but they couldn’t have her. No. Not this time.

Rainbow clung to me, sobbing, and I rocked her gently.

“It’s okay, honey,” I whispered. My hands smeared blood and soot on her face. I didn’t care. She was alive.

When she had calmed enough to fall into an exhausted sleep, I handed her to a neighbor and crept away. I didn’t want anybody to notice that there were two of me there.

Back in realtime, I took a long shower, bandaged my wounds, and had two glasses of smooth old scotch, vintage 1991.

*   *   *

The next morning, I called in a favor from Jimmy Wu, keeper of the SFPD database.

“Her name’s Rainbow.”

Good old Jimmy searched for her, beginning in late 1968. He looked and looked for Rainbow. He never found a trace of her.

“Shit, Chrissy,” he said. “They were all called Rainbow that year. “Or Morning Star or Peacelove. I need a real name, like Tammy or Katie or Sarah, and a social security number. A last name would be really nice.”

So the trail fizzled out in the backyard of a smoldering house on Potrero Hill, fifty-six years ago. And nothing anomalous ever happened that I could detect – not one ripple of difference in the timeline. MacHeath didn’t turn green, I didn’t grow wings. San Francisco glittered as always in the chilly summer sunlight. I guess some people are just throwaway people. They don’t make any difference at all, in any time.

Did she survive to adulthood? Or did she overdose in some gas station bathroom near Reseda when she was twelve? Did I break every time law on the books merely to postpone her fate? I don’t know – but I do know one thing. I sleep better now.

The rhythms of routine distracted me. My cuts healed. My memories receded to a comfortable distance.

*   *   *

About three days ago, I got a call from a real estate agent in the Castro.

“Christine? I got your name from Jerry Raskin.”

“I’m not interested in downtime apartments.”

She laughed a breathy laugh. “Oh, I only deal in realtime estate. And I’ve got two places I want to show you. The first is a beauty: a three-bedroom apartment in the Potrero Hill area. Upstairs and down. Used to be a two-family unit. You’ve got to see it to believe it.”

Everything inside me stilled to a whisper. I could see the window again, that window with its small dirty fingerprints.

“Hello? Hello?”

Somehow I found my voice. “I’ve seen it.”

“But that’s impossible. This apartment just came on the market.”

“Believe me, I’ve seen it. In fact, you might say that I’ve spent way too much time on it already.” And then I hung up.

Previous: Geoffrey A. Landis/At Dorado
Next: Harry Turtledove/Twenty-One, Counting Up