The past is like a foreign country: They have weird McDonald’s specials there.
Art by Rebekka Dunlap
What if time travel just ends up being exploited as real estate opportunity? This week, we find out. -the Ed
The past is like a foreign country: They have weird McDonald's specials there. Here, it's a burger with olives and larks' tongues; it's called the McTrojan Deluxe, which makes it sound like there's something sneaky hiding inside it, which if you hate olives is true. I hate olives. But they also serve wine, so I'm drinking lots of wine. It's unpleasantly packed in the restaurant, but then, it's packed everywhere.
The McDonald's special in 5th-century Mongolia, where I went to a conference last month, is some kind of unspeakable meat patty. That's what they call it—the UnMcSpeakable Meat Patty. To me it looked and tasted a lot like a regular McDonald's burger, but maybe that's the point. People don't want to feel uncomfortable or out of place when they go on a trip, especially if they're going for work; work trips should be easy and predictable, the same tastes and schedules and climate control smells and creepily stiff bed linens no matter what time period you're in.
Rome has some cool attractions, at least. You can go to an authentic vomitorium, for instance, or watch the Roman Senate debate a point of law—which is almost the same thing, really. Of course it's just a show for the tourists, but most of the re-enactors are real Romans, born and bred here, though of course it's been decades since there was a Roman who remembered the pre-colonial era. And my company manufactures the historically-accurate marble for the Senate facade, and the bronze for the statues, and the the easy-wash tile for the vomitorium floor. AccuSpackle: You'll Never Know The Earth's Mineral Resources Were Depleted™.
I'm supposed to meet my coworker Martin at the McDonald's to hand off some specs. The project he's taking samples for is my project, technically, but I'm not allowed to come, because Martin is senior to me even though he is not my boss because I'm smarter than he is and he's always looking down my top. Normally I don't care that much, but the Rome line is my baby; I've always felt a real affinity for this time period. Maybe it's the wine. But probably it's that I'm comforted by the parts of the past where something giant and immutable looms above the modern bustle and the suffocating crowds, like it's standing outside of time.
The Coliseum, the Colossus of Rhodes, the pyramids, Atlantis—they have a kind of grand quiet to them, and quiet is in short supply these days. It's like an organic quiet, too, even though they're human-made; it's what I imagine national parks felt like, when those were a thing. You can cover the past in Ruby Tuesdays AccuSpackled up to look like castles, but there are some things you can't fake.
Martin's ID code flickers across my retina, and I pull up the call.
"Hey Liz." How is he still trying to look down my shirt on a low-bandwidth call? I'm a head and shoulders and I'm like 200 DPI. "I'm unavoidably detained. Can you go sideways for me? Hilde says it's okay, it's your project anyway."
Can I go sideways? Of course I can go sideways. I've always wanted to go to the true past, but I've never gotten to because it's such a pain in the ass. You have to go to the time you want first, and then transfer lines to an alt-U shuttle and take it to one where humans didn't invent time travel, which is obviously extremely tricky, especially getting back. Even then, of course, you can't get to the original original past—the alt-U shuttles aren't all that precise, and obviously there are a near-infinite number of places they can land. You usually end up in a timeline that's a lot like ours except they never invented Pop Tarts, or the USSR fell in 1992, or there were only four Beatles, or whatever. It's close enough for materials research, though, and it's close enough for me.
But I don't want Martin to think he's doing me a favor. "All right, on one condition," I say. "Next team-building vomitorium trip, you're buying. And I'm staying home."
The shuttle stops almost as soon as it starts, since it's not moving through time in any noticeable way. We've landed in a field, and when I look back I can see that the shuttle is disguised as two brown horses. Which is fine, unless there are more brown horses in this field, in which case I'm going to have a hell of a time figuring out which ones are my ride and which ones are going to kick me when I try to key in the code. Then I move past a line of cypress trees and suddenly the whole true past is gleaming in front of me.
I'd heard that the first thing that strikes you about the true past is the space, but I kind of scoffed at that—after all, I've been in the ballroom at the Trump International Hotel Grand Inquisition, which is practically the size of the whole Vatican. Somehow, though, it's totally different to see that much floor space and no ceiling or walls. My breath hitches, not from the smell of manure but just from a sort of vertigo as I come to terms with the vast unboundedness. What's the opposite of claustrophobia? Living on a planet of 1.5 trillion people, even though they're spread out over 15,000 years, I've never had to find out.
They try to run the alt-U shuttles into low-population areas, though there's some guesswork involved; it's not like anywhere in our timeline is really low-population, so you mostly just go a few miles outside the city and hope for the best. In this case, they nailed it. I'm at the high point of a stretch of lightly rolling farmland crisscrossed by conical trees, and below me I can see the full sweep of ancient Rome—actual ancient Rome—its marble lustrous in the afternoon sun.
It's spectacular, and as I glance from the lofty arch of the viaducts to the small homey dwellings on the edge of town, I'm clutched by a feeling I'm surprised to recognize as homesickness. Not homesickness for the time I left, but a paradoxical longing to live here—in one of those sweet little cottages, in the shadow of those graceful marvels of architecture, in all this empty, empty, empty space.
Of course, there's no way I could stay. Even if I could somehow hack the shuttle to return without me, it's extremely frowned upon to spend too much time in an alt—not actually illegal, since none of our governments have jurisdiction here, but something approaching taboo. In theory this has something to do with colonialism and not polluting the past, but given that our entire civilization is built on colonialism and polluting the past, I think it's probably more about collective guilt. On some level, we know it's not right to force our way ever further back in time, squeezing out the real inhabitants and paving over their cultures with our comforts. If people started doing the same thing to the alts, it would remind us that we're already assholes.
Not that it matters, since we're all a bunch of helpless slugs who would probably die if we stayed in the past for more than about twelve hours. How did people used to get coffee, or burritos? I've never lived further than 20 yards from a Starbucks dispensary, even when I'm staying in a hotel in Sumeria or something, and my dinner shows up via drone. I shake the wistfulness out of my head and start walking towards the nearest cluster of cottages, which is pretty far outside the city, more of an independent village than a suburb. My official task here is to take samples of building materials, which we'll use to fine-tune AccuSpackle products for our Ancient Rome customers. I have time to appreciate—in passing—the openness, the vast silence, the smells of grass and loam and no B.O. But I don't have time to fantasize about slipping, utterly unprepared, off the grid.
Luckily, the village is quiet. A few people are milling around outside their houses, chatting or drawing water or running errands, but they're easy to spot and avoid. Martin is our usual true past guy—he's the one with basic language skills, while I basically know no Latin besides "salve," "vale," "vinum," and "futue te ipsum." He probably even has a special set of inconspicuous clothes for traveling; my jacket is considered baseline appropriate for sideways trips, since it's a neutral color and has a hood, but it won't stand up to scrutiny. But even if he were here, the recommended protocol is avoidance. Take your samples, don't make eye contact, and leave.
Thankfully Del, who's our lead tech, is really good at writing out instructions for the sampling kits in a way even an idiot can understand. I'm able to work efficiently, without too much worry that I'll contaminate something or leak developing fluid everywhere. I get some plaster, some paving stones, some roof tiles, easily stepping into shadows and alleyways on the rare occasion that I spot someone. But the town is so sleepy that I get overconfident, and as I'm sauntering over to an interesting-looking stone wall I realize, too late, that there's a girl on the other side.
I've been told to keep my hood up if an encounter with a true-past local is unavoidable; people from our time are much darker than the colonizing groups in the times we visit, which means we could wind up enslaved or dead if we're not careful. Small energy weapons are legal when traveling sideways, and I've heard plenty of bros at shuttle stops talking a big "I wish someone would try it" game, but the truth is you don't want a run-in with the true past. It was shady at the best of times.
But this girl isn't much paler than me, though she's sporting one of those drapey linen numbers like the senators' wives wear and her hair is up in a complicated chignon. When she spots me there's something like recognition, and then something like panic. Then she bricks up her face as tight as her wall and I wonder if I imagined it.
Running away would be too suspicious, but greeting her is risky with my limited Latin, and standing still for too long will give her time to notice that my jacket is far too structured and shiny to be from her time. I'm trapped. I consider waving my hands in front of her face, yelling "this has all been a dream!" and then leaping off into the shrubbery, but instead I try to nod in an offhanded way that communicates both "I see you" and "so what."
She nods back. I swear I see that anxiety in her eyes again, but it might just be how her face looks; she has a little of the rabbit in her, snub-nosed and twitchy. "Elkomwé ainjerstré," she says tentatively, and seems to expect a response.
Shit. I definitely don't know enough Latin for this.
I nod again, cough my way through a "salve," and hustle off, making a vague "gotta go" gesture. Miraculously, it seems to work; she doesn't seek further contact, or chase me, or sound an alarm. I duck behind the village well to compose myself, and take a little stone sample while I'm there.
I intend to beeline back to the shuttle, but I get distracted by a great little wooden shack I want to sample first. As I come out from behind it, I almost crash into the girl again. She's talking to a young man with tightly curled hair who looks exactly like a bronze statue of a discus thrower, and when they see me they stop talking in a way that makes it clear what they were talking about. I guess I spoke too soon about the alarm.
"Ustjé aktwé atcheralné," he says to her, deliberately loud enough for me to hear, as if I speak their stupid language.
"Good-ay bye-ay forever-ay" I mutter, and book it back to the horse field.
I don't tell anyone about my run-in with the locals; I figure nobody needs to know. I do try to run whatever they said to me through some translation software, but I must not be spelling it right. Anyway, Latin has a lot of local dialects that even Martin wouldn't know—especially if they were an enclave of immigrants or conquered foreigners or former slaves, which might explain their less-than-Roman skin tone, their location outside the city, and their expression when they saw an intruder. I can't find anything in Martin's trip logs about a similarly weird encampment, but the odds are pretty high that not all of our previous sideways trips have been hitting this precise alt anyway. Maybe none of them have.
The company doesn't let me analyze samples myself; these are highly sensitive and expensive machines and I'm just a product manager. I'm not even allowed to give them to the techs myself, even though Del and I are pals. I hand them over to Martin, and when we get back from the conference he hands them over to the techs, and a week later I get a fat envelope from inter-office mail. I'm supposed to hand this envelope right back over to my boss Hilde before I even look at the results. But there's a note on the front in Del's Cuneiform-impenetrable handwriting. "LIZ," it says. "SONTIIING IS VERT FOCTED OP."
I submitted 17 samples of various kinds of materials from the authentic Roman past. According to the test results, every one of them contains almost exclusively materials invented in the 20th century or later. There's some talc and some graphite, but also Fiberglas, memory polymer, high-end ceramic composites, and carbon fiber. It gets worse, too. There are nanobots in here.
In other words: it's AccuSpackle. Every single one of the samples is AccuSpackle.
Of course, weird things happen when you're essentially traversing realities. It's possible, in the sense that in an infinite set of universes literally everything is possible, that I landed in an alt in which AccuSpackle is, by coincidence, one of the basic elements of the world. That is, shall we say, not the most likely explanation. But the likelier one is so off the rails, so beyond anything that anyone's ever done, that it's hard to wrap my head around what I'm looking at.
But I'm looking at it. Seventeen samples of nano-enabled AccuSpackle in a supposedly original Roman village. A fold of our overcrowded, over-colonized world poking into another universe like a hernia.
I try to feel angry, I do. The sheer rapaciousness of colonizing an entire past, and then deciding it isn't enough! The hubris of convincing yourself that another culture, another time, another reality is just the place for you to build your summer home! I should turn them in, I really should. There's no government authority that could do anything, at least until we got them back here, but the Society for Responsible Anachronism would have something to say. They'd march them out by their ears.
But then I think about the rent on the shitty little hovel I live in, the hot breath on my neck and the armpit in my face every time I commute or get coffee or even stop to check my messages. I picture myself draped in white gauze, making eyes at the discus thrower from beneath a crown of elegant braids. Walking out into the countryside for a day, plucking grapes right from the trees—do grapes grow on trees? Never seeing another soul, pretending I've never heard of the McTrojan Deluxe. I could learn to like olives, if I had to. I could definitely learn to like living somewhere that we haven't ruined yet.
I never wanted to live in an endless string of temporal exurbs, with a McDonald's and a Cranial Jack Shack and a Baby Gap in every one. My parents and their parents wanted that, maybe, but not me. I wanted the vast, earthy quiet of the pyramids and the Cave of Lascaux, before every single one of them had a snack kiosk and a gift store. I wanted to be away from people, not always, but ever. We've pushed solitude out of every corner of our world, like when I was a kid and always tried to coax every last molecule of cake-flavored nutritional paste out of the tube. Maybe the only way to find it again is to strike out beyond our boundaries.
And someone else feels this way. And someone else already has.
So here's what I'm going to do, Del. I'm going to tell the company that the sample was tainted, and that I'll have to go get another. It'll be a while before they can send me back, but that's all right; it's going to take me a while to figure out how to send the shuttle back without me, and I'll need some clothes, and a crash course in gardening, and… I don't know… Clif bars? I'm not sure if it's possible for me to steer the shuttle towards that exact stratum of reality; you can help, if you want to help, but if you can't I'll figure it out alone. Or maybe I won't—maybe I'll just put down roots wherever I land. Now that I know it's possible. Now that I know it's something people do.
Thanks for tipping me off, and thanks for not telling Hilde, and thanks for continuing to not tell Hilde until you die, lest I literally find an actual gladiator and send him sideways to clobber you. You've been a good friend. I'll be very glad never to see you, or almost anyone, ever again.