io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Advice From the Civil Temporal Defense League” by Sandra McDonald. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
Be Aware of Strangers Who Ask You What Day It It.
Be Aware of Strangers Who Ask You What Year It Is.
Be Aware of Stunned Looking Strangers Who Murmur “Mom?” in The Squeeze-In Diner When You Stop By After School For a Chocolate Malt, Though Clearly You Have Never Given Birth to Them or to Anyone At All, Thank You Very Much.
Be Aware of Strangers Wearing Clothing, Footwear, or Accessories That Seem Just A Few Years Out of Fashion or Incongruent With the Season, Climate, or Weather Forecast, or Perhaps Not Gender Appropriate Because No Woman Needs to Wear Trousers Anyway, or Who Are Not Wearing Their Mandatory Orange Chrono Radiation Badges.
BE ON ALERT At All Times for TIME TRAVELER Arrivals, Especially In Empty Parking Lots, in Poorly Lit Alleys, or On Sparsely Traveled Roads Like Old Highway Seventeen Just Outside Town. Signs that a TIME TRAVELER Might Be Arriving:
- Unexpected Flashes of Bright Light, Sometimes With A Dramatic Strobing Effect;
- Unexpected Gusts of Wind Stirring Trash Along the Sidewalk or Against A Chain Link Fence Like The Kind You Can Purchase At The Feed & Seed From Earl Hynes, Chairman of Our Very Own Civil Temporal Defense League;
- Unexpected Noises Indicating A Sudden Explosion of Energy, A Change of Temporal Pressure, and/or A Gate Opening Between Worlds That Will Inevitably Lead To Chaos and Tragedy Such as That Time Betty Newell’s Grandson Sired Betty’s Grandmother And All Hell Broke Loose.
Be Aware of Strangers Who Stand In Telephone Booths By The Side of Highway 17 With Perplexed Expressions and/or Rip Pages Out Of Phone Books And Now The Next Person Can’t Find The Listing for Betty Newell, Thanks So Much.
Be Aware of Strangers Who Hitch A Ride Into Town With The Milkman And Ask Where Is The USB Port Because Their Battery is Almost Dead Even Though They Thought They Put It On Airplane Mode.
Be Aware of Strangers Who Gaze at The Picturesque Town Square as If They’ve Seen It Before But Somewhat Different, Who Ask for Something Called A Frappuccino No Whip From Your Aunt Doreen at The Squeeze-In Diner, Who Seem Surprised By Pictures of President Adlai Stevenson in The Morning Newspaper, Who Try to Play Elvis Presley’s song Funny How Time Slips Away On The Jukebox Without Inserting a Nickel First, And Who Seem Even More Surprised to Learn that Corporal Elvis Presley Died in That Tragic Accident at Fort Hood in Texas And Your Aunt Doreen Will Never Get Over It.
Be Aware of Strangers Who Follow You Home from The Squeeze-In Diner and Wait Until Your Dad Goes off to His Night Shift at the Hospital and Wander Up Your Driveway to Your Kitchen Door and Then Call Your New Puppy By The Name You Just Decided on A Few Minutes Ago.
Be Sure You Don’t Think His Sad Smile Is So Oddly Familiar That You Take Pity on This Lost Stranger and Invite Him in for Lemonade and You Always Did Follow Your Heart, Mary-Ann Newkirk, Even When You Should be Following Your Head.
Be Concerned When He Squints at Common Household Devices (Transistor Radio, Stereo Console, Television Receiver) as if He’s Wandered Into a Museum Instead of Your Dad’s Living Room and Reaches a Reverent Finger Toward the Framed Photograph of You and Tommy Hardy at the Senior Prom, Both of You So Happy in Your Formal Wear and Silver Chrono Helmets.
Be Especially Wary When He Apologizes to You with Vague Details but Heartfelt Emotion About Something He Says You Will Some Day Understand, Who Gives You a Gold Locket That Looks Just Like the One You Gave Tommy Before He Shipped Off in the Army to West Germany Back in August, and Who Leaves Abruptly With Tear-filled Eyes and a Vow to Fix What Has Been Broken.
Isn’t It Curious That His Eyes Are the Same Beautiful Blue-Green Color as Tommy’s?
Isn’t It Strange That Tommy Hasn’t Written Back Since He Went To West Germany?
REPORT THAT SUSPICIOUS STRANGER IMMEDIATELY TO THE DEFENSE LEAGUE, Mary-Ann.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THAT, Escort Yourself to the League Offices for Your Mandatory Debriefing, Chrono Radiation Evaluation, and Temporal Scrub Down.
Don’t Wait Until A TEMPORAL EMERGENCY Happens to Know What To Do and Who To Call.
Don’t Try To Warn Your Future or Past Selves. They Never Listen.
Don’t Go Into The Streets During The Emergency, Which Will Probably Be Announced on All Radio Frequencies Long Before It Actually Occurs Because Cause and Effect Don’t Work During a TEMPORAL EMERGENCY, Didn’t They Teach You That in School?
Don’t Go Looking for a Safer Shelter. During a TEMPORAL EMERGENCY, No Place Is Truly Safe from The Five Threat Categories of Time Disruption: Discrepancies, Oddities, Disruptions, Paradoxes, and Shenanigans. Hiding In a Root Cellar Won’t Save Your Timeline from Cracking, Snapping, and Fracturing as The Universe Itself Realigns.
Instead, Find Comfort in a Place That Is Familiar and Cozy, Like the Cedar-Lined Closet in the Hallway That Henry Newkirk Built for His Bride Alice Back When They Were Young and Madly In Love, Long Before the Chrono-Cancer Stole Her Years and Ovaries and Thyroid Function, Before She Took to Bed and Faded, Faded, Faded Away While Her Husband and Daughter Watched Helplessly.
Don’t Hesitate to Subdue a Suspected TIME TRAVELER By Any Means Necessary and Make a Civil Arrest Until Enforcers from the Civil Temporal Defense League Can Arrive. Aunt Doreen’s Boyfriend Ray Will Catch a TIME TRAVELER In His Garage Next Christmas Eve and after Christmas Dinner We All Will Enjoy The Execution in Our Picturesque Town Square. Thank You In Advance to Ray for The Exemplary Civil Service and to Our Very Own Earl Hynes for Providing the Bullets.
Don’t Go Looking For Answers in Dusty City Records, in Dusty Books on Dusty Library Shelves, or in Dusty Archives in Civil Temporal Defense League Closets.
Dust Never Leads to Clarity.
After All, Dust Is Barely Sentient. It Is Mostly Tiny Bits of Debris From Everyone and Everything That Has Ever Existed or Will Exist, or Maybe Existed in a Corrupted Timeline Where Eisenhower Was Elected or Corporal Elvis Presley Reported to Duty in a U.S. Army Secret Temporal Laboratory in West Germany Instead of the Our Correct and Absolutely Perfect Timeline, where Tommy Hardy Reported Instead And No Don’t Ask Us More Unless You Want a Visit from the Enforcers.
Speaking of the Enforcers, Mary-Ann, Mrs. Earl Hynes Happened To Be Driving Down The Street in Her Cadillac and Saw What Might Be a TIME TRAVELER Walking up Your Driveway. Fearful for Your Safety, She Has Alerted The Civil Temporal Defense League.
Don’t Jump on Your Bicycle and Race After the Stranger with Tommy’s Eyes.
Don’t Catch Up to Him in the Alley by The Squeeze-In Diner and Grab His Sleeve and Beg Him to Take You Where He’s Going in Order to Save Tommy, Your One True Love.
Don’t Watch Your Alternate-Timeline Son Take a Time Traveling Device from His Pocket and Deftly Activate It. Time Travel Devices Might Take a Variety of Appearances:
- A Metallic Orb with a Steampunk Vibe that Emits a Mysterious Light;
- A Doorway, Glowing or Darkened, that Clearly Was Not There a Moment Ago;
- A Phone Booth Of Dubious Origin;
- A Futuristic Automobile Unlike Any You Have Ever Seen Before, But Certainly Not as Affordable as Those Sold by our Own Earl Hynes at His New Dealership near Route Seventeen.
DON’T BE SELFISH, Mary-Ann. Yes, Tommy Has a Good Soul and You Love Him Dearly. Still, How Important Is One Life Weighed Against the Correct and Absolutely Perfect Timeline? You Can’t Just Go Mucking Around Time Propelled by Grief and Your Heart’s Desire. Where Will the Madness End? Would You Keep Stevenson from the White House to Keep the Secret Temporal Laboratory in West Germany from Being Built? Would You Save Elvis so that He Reports to West Germany Instead of Your Tommy?
Would You Save Your Mother? Remember, She Always Wanted You to Date Betty Newell’s Grandson Instead.
Who’s to Say The World Will Be Better off When You’re Done with Your Meddling?
True, Your Tommy Accidentally Triggered the Explosion in The Secret Temporal Laboratory that Threw the World into the Chaos We Face Today. Preventing That Would Save a Universe of Grief.
For Some Of Us.
Yet as Earl Hynes Likes To Say in Our Meetings, “Time’s a Mess But It’s OUR Mess.”
The Civil Temporal Defense League Will Protect You All. Whether You Want Us to or Not.
Besides, We’ve Seen Elvis Perform. It Was Shameful.
Long Live Time Travel.
Four of Sandra McDonald’s stories have been noted on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and her collection Diana Comet and Other Impossible Stories was a Booklist Editor’s Choice and ALA Over the Rainbow book. She is the author of The Outback Stars series of SF adventures, the Fisher Key mysteries for LGBTQ young adults, and stories that have appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Beyond Binary and War and Space: Recent Combat as well other magazines and anthologies. Once upon a time she was Hollywood assistant who worked at CBS Television and Disney Studios. Visit her at sandramcdonald.com.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the April 2022 issue, which also features work by Ashok K. Banker (a two-part novella!), Charlie Jane Anders, Maurice Broaddus, Izzy Wasserstein, Leah Cypess, Phoebe Barton, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at this link.
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