Photo by Sindre Aalberg

A Collection for All Times

by Aaron Emmel

The night Deren recruited Zoey to join the Alexendria’s then-four person crew, he brought her to the world’s most exclusive party. She was twenty, a bit younger than he’d been when he’d joined three years earlier, and he wanted her to understand what she’d be getting into.

They stood in their hosts’ vaulted gallery, a room larger than Deren’s childhood home, lined with trophies in glass cases. Most of the world’s forty-odd Collectors were there, viewing the displays while they felt each other out for information and sipped wine from varietals that couldn’t be found anywhere else on Earth and weren’t mentioned in any history books. They were all competitors, but only their competitors and the Alexandria’s crew could appreciate what it was they did.

“What do you think?” one of their hosts asked, stepping up to them as Zoey gawked. The Collector was hairless and dressed in loose robes, a style maintained from some timeline that no longer existed. Deren didn’t know which member of the couple it was, Suleiman or Sharita.

“It’s hard to imagine all of this is real,” Zoey said.

The Collector smiled and gestured toward the gilded staff in front of them. “This was the Rod of the Imperium. The symbol of the emperor’s authority in the Exalted Empire.”

Zoey frowned at the artifact. “The Exalted Empire?”

“That was the empire that had ruled Earth for three hundred years when I was born.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“That’s because it was erased,” the Collector said and laughed. “Never happened. We sent the Alexandria back to 1648 and ended up with the Peace of Westphalia. Another trip to the past gave us the United Nations, and the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, and now we have the World Council. The empire was never founded and all the murderers who wielded that rod were never born. But Suleiman and I remember, and we have the rod to prove it.”

Later, Deren led Zoey to a balcony that looked down on the city glimmering far below.

“Now I get it,” Zoey told him, leaning to gaze over the railing.

“Get what?”

“I’m overwhelmed,” she admitted. At least, he thought the word was similar to “overwhelmed”—the term she used was unfamiliar to him, something that often happened when he returned from a mission. Sometimes in obvious ways and sometimes more subtly, languages accommodated and echoed the changes introduced to the past.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“If you’d told me before what I would see at this party, I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t have come. But now, to understand what you do, to know it’s real—I’m in love with history. The thought of going back and actually seeing the past in person—that would have been enough for me to sign on.”

“‘Would have been?’”

“It’s not just that, is it? It’s not about us getting to go back, or the Collectors’ bragging rights. You’ve actually made the world a better place.”

Deren shivered in the fall air. He’d told Kaitlin almost exactly the same thing, the night she’d recruited him. But now, thinking of the rod in the gallery behind him, he knew that wasn’t the full reason he’d joined. He’d been afraid of being swept away, like all the subjects of the Exalted Empire and their timeline. By recruiting Zoey, he was giving her a place in the ark.

He replayed that night in his mind two years later as he watched Zoey in the Alexandria’s hold and wondered, for the first time, if they should back out of a mission. It was the way Zoey trailed her fingers over the transparent, vacuum-sealed archival case, almost reverently.

“You don’t want Federated Earth to be erased,” he said.

Zoey’s eyes widened momentarily. That wasn’t the kind of thing they normally talked about. But Deren knew that everything ended. Most things, given enough time, deserved to end.

Zoey glanced up from the well-protected document, the handwritten Charter of the World Council and its appended Five Principles of Federated Earth. “I liked spending time in a universe where people had finally learned to work together.” She spoke with affected lightness that wasn’t quite convincing. One hand gripped a grab bar to hold herself in place in zero gravity. “I wish I could open the case. At least I have more time with it before we have to hand it over.”

That’s when Kaitlin pinged them over the ship’s intercom. It was time for the mission brief.

“This is where we intercept the ground car.” Kaitlin pointed at a roundabout exit on the holographic map. They were in the mess, which doubled as the ready room, of the decommissioned, forty-meter long corvette Alexandria.

“We only have to hold it for two minutes.” Kaitlin explained. “That’s enough time for the Secret Service and Guoanbu to get the American and Chinese presidents to safety. No double assassination, everything that follows changes, and the World Council is never formed.”

“We need a third person,” Roger said. “Eyes on the ground, stationed at this intersection.”

The five of them floated weightlessly above the map projection. Kaitlin McGoldrick, the captain, picklock and general badass; Roger Habeck, security and comms; Zoey Greene, copilot, historian and engineer; Maryam Izadi, mission research and supplies; and Deren Kamara, who alone among the crew only had one primary job.

Deren pushed himself forward. “I’ll go.”

Kaitlin gave him a look that said he wasn’t getting anywhere near a weapon, whether it was held by him or a hostile. “The chrono-navigator is the one person we can’t afford to lose. If anything happens to you, who’s going to get us to the right time and place for our next mission? Zoey, Maryam will get you late twenty-first century clothes.”

They continued to plan while Maryam passed out their gear. “The three of us will have to be in position in advance, which means a lot of waiting around before the kinetics start,” Kaitlin said. “We’ll be pushing the edge of the time window for the chrono-anchors.”

The anchors were like tethers, stretching tauter the longer they traveled through time. They kept the Collectors safe by anchoring them to the altered timeline created by the team’s actions. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be used by the Alexandria’s own crew if one of them was to be left behind: anchoring to two timelines at once could tear space-time apart.

Zoey pulled back her braids with a hair band and gave Deren and Maryam fist bumps. “See you soon,” she said.

They saw it happen from the map room. The compartment was Deren’s station, but Maryam often joined him there, researching their next jobs while he zoomed and rotated through the holographic space-time map that filled the chamber.

They pulled up hacked satellite feeds as the target time drew closer. At 14:02, a delivery van swerved the wrong way into the traffic circle and blocked the autonomous SUV that was speeding toward the summit hotel. The SUV skidded to a stop. Roger jumped out of the van and fired flechettes at the SUV’s tires. Just a few seconds later, people started rushing from the hotel’s main tower. The firefight had begun. But unlike in the history feeds, this time the SUV wasn’t there to provide covering fire and finish with a blast that took out half the lobby. Two minutes later, a trio of men were marched out of the hotel in handcuffs. The other assassins must have been taken down during the shooting.

“It’s 14:04 on the ground,” Maryam said. “I think the presidents are alive. The mission was a success.”

There was an explosion down the street, blocks away from the hotel.

Deren pushed forward against the straps holding him to the seat. “That’s the intersection where Zoey was.”

“Where is she? Do you see her?”

“No. Just smoke. People are running. I can’t tell—”

“That doesn’t make sense. None of the explosive devices planted along the three possible motorcade routes went off in the original timeline.”

Deren didn’t answer. The team had been on the ground for forty-five minutes. Their presence could easily have triggered unanticipated changes.

“Zoey’s tough,” Maryam said. “She has to be all right.”

Deren sent a message to Kaitlin letting her know what had just happened and urging her or Roger to check on Zoey, but by the frantic movements of people on the sidewalk, he already knew that something was wrong. It took a few more minutes for Kaitlin to respond.

“Zoey’s unconscious,” Kaitlin said. “She—Deren, I….”

Deren leaned forward in his chair as if he could physically bridge the thousands of miles of distance between them. “What? What happened?”

“She was right next to the blast. I didn’t even recognize her. The bomb…it was designed to tear open a car.”

Maryam pressed her hand against her jacket pocket. It was what she always did when she was tense.

Deren felt a stabbing pain behind his eyes, like his head was being squeezed. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ll get back to you. We have to go.”

Deren tried repeatedly to call Kaitlin back. When he finally reached her again, five minutes later, she said they were in the shuttle. It was the first time he’d ever heard her sound scared. “We’re taking Zoey to a hospital.”

Deren and Maryam had gone to the Alexandria’s cockpit. They didn’t know what action they could take, but whatever it was, that seemed like the place to be ready to take it. “We have to get her back to our own time,” Deren said.

“She needs treatment now.”

“The medical technology in this century—”

“Deren,” Kaitlin snapped, “this needs to happen now.” There was a brief pause. “She wants to talk to you.”

The whole crew was close, but Deren still felt a sense of responsibility for the engineer he’d recruited.

Zoey’s voice was tight and faint. “Deren, you’re not going to leave me in this time, are you? You’re going to come back for me.”

Deren glanced at Maryam beside him. None of them knew what to expect when they got back to their own time. The only thing they knew for sure was that the world changed after each mission. This ship and its crew, along with the Collectors, were the only world certain to still be there, no matter what happened. “We’re coming back for you,” he said.

Zoey didn’t answer.

“Sorry,” Kaitlin said, “she’s not awake anymore. But her heart is still beating. We’re touching down outside the hospital now.”

Kaitlin was grim but brisk when she and Roger returned. “Zoey’s going to be OK. It’s not twenty-second century technology, but they’re equipped for this type of emergency.” She initiated the temporal drive’s power-up and waited while Deren and Maryam exited the cockpit. “Let’s go home.”

Ten minutes later, her voice came over the intercom in the map room. “Is there a problem? I need the coordinates to take us back.”

Deren stared at the digits in front of him.

Maryam’s fingers twitched, as if she was ready to lock them in herself. “Deren, what’s going on?”

“Whatever the issue is, resolve it.” Kaitlin’s voice was hard. “We have to go.”

Deren’s finger hovered over the virtual button. Then he pulled back his hand. “We’ve never left someone behind before.”

The bolts of Maryam’s harness creaked as she twisted to face him. She looked more than impatient. For some reason he didn’t understand, her expression was angry, “We’re going to fall out of our chrono-anchor window and lose our connection to the Collectors.”

“I know how the chrono-anchors work.” The very last thing on his mind was what the Collectors needed.

From the Collectors’ perspective, the Alexandria always returned the instant it left, so they had no perception of actually of being enclosed in a time bubble. But if their connection to the Alexandra was lost—if the ship was somehow lost, or their tethers to the chrono-anchors were cut—each of them would be trapped in their own personal time bubbles forever, with no way to escape and no way to reach anyone else.

Maryam unstrapped herself with a click and leaned past him, the black cloud of her hair tickling his face, and stabbed the button. “Done.”

“Thank you,” Kaitlin said over the intercom.

Kaitlin handed the case containing the Charter and Five Principles to Suleiman and Sharita on the porch of their house. Behind Kaitlin and Deren stretched a vast lawn where monumental statues gazed pensively over flagstone paths and the city far below. Through the doorway, Deren glimpsed the large, open rooms that flowed into one another, stately and serene.

Like all Collectors, Suleiman and Sharita were protected from changes in the space-time continuum by their personal anchors to the Alexandria. Maybe they’d started changing the past because they wanted a better world. Maybe they’d always done it just because they could.

“This is what you asked for,” Kaitlin told the Collectors. “The founding documents of a planetwide federation that never existed.”

Suleiman, the taller of the two, blinked. “The second half of your payment has just been transferred.”

Kaitlin looked at Deren. Normally, Maryam accompanied her for these visits, but Deren had insisted on coming. He hadn’t told Kaitlin what he’d planned to say because he knew she’d keep him on the ship: “You should know that we lost our friend for this artifact. There’s no record of her in the past where we left her. She’s vanished from the timeline.”

He swallowed down the comments. Suleiman and Sharita wouldn’t mourn her. The loss would only make them consider their new acquisition even more valuable. He turned and walked away from the mansion.

“We can’t go on another mission now,” Deren insisted as the thinning thermosphere gave way to darkness outside the shuttle windows.

Kaitlin’s hands and attention were on the controls. “I know you’re upset about Zoey. We all are.”

“We need to rebuild our team. We aren’t ready to be out again.”

“Maryam found—”

“I don’t care what Maryam found.”

Kaitlin finally turned to him and put a hand on his arm. “We had to leave. That wasn’t Maryam’s fault.”

“We lost Zoey. I don’t care whose fault it is.”

She paused. “Why do you think the explosive went off, when our records said it wouldn’t?”

Deren didn’t answer.

“When we get back, give Maryam a chance. Just listen to her.” Kaitlin squeezed his forearm and returned her hands to the control panel as the Alexandria came into view.

Back on the ship, Kaitlin gathered the crew in the mess and gave the floor to Maryam.

“We left Zoey in the late twenty-first century,” Maryam said, “but there’s no evidence from that period to show she was ever there.”

“Then let’s go look for her,” Roger said.

“We will. But that’s not all that’s changed.” Her voice was matter-of-fact, but she pressed her hand against her jacket pocket, like she did whenever she was anxious. “I’ve found three other historical incidents that don’t match our memories or the Alexandria’s logs. All of them are related in some way to our ship or crew.”

“What kind of changes?” Deren asked.

“Well, the big one was that we’ve been working with Apollo Aerospace on upgrades to the Alexandria.”


“Apollo Aerospace doesn’t exist. Its parent company was liquidated five years ago.”

Roger frowned. “What does that mean? That someone’s coming after us? That we have competition?”

“That’s not possible,” Deren said. “We have the only temporal drive in the universe.”

Maryam glanced at Kaitlin before responding. “When we drop temporal anchors, they warp space-time. Just like gravity, except they appear suddenly. If someone were looking, and they knew what to look for, they could find us.”

Deren realized what she was about to say before she said it.

“We’ve found signs of another ship,” Maryam told them. “It must use technology that’s similar to ours. It’s near Jupiter, and mostly masked by the planet’s gravity well. But it’s there.”

Roger turned so quickly toward Kaitlin that he had to catch the wall to keep himself from spinning in the zero-g. “Then we have to go now. Before they move.”

“Our plan is to hail them when we get there,” Kaitlin said. “See who they are and talk to them if we can.”

“And if they don’t respond?” Roger asked.

She held his gaze. “They’re an existential threat. Not just to us. To our timeline.”

No one answered. They’d always known they had the only temporal drive, because the timeline had always matched their records. What would it mean to live in a universe where that was no longer the case?

Kaitlin looked from Roger to Deren. “Are we all in?”

Zoey had usually taken the spot just to Deren’s left during briefings. The space was empty now, and Deren avoided staring at it. “I’m not waiting behind on the ship this time.”

“Not an option,” Kaitlin started to say, but Deren kept going: “Whatever’s out there, I want to see it.”

The unknown ship was already accelerating away as it swung into view over Jupiter’s horizon. “Adjusting course for interception,” Kaitlin said.

The alien craft was a dagger of ridged black metal slicing across the planet’s storm-roiled hemisphere, unrelated to any model Deren had seen before—but there was something oddly familiar about it, as well. It didn’t respond to their hails.

“Does that ship kind of look like ours?” Deren asked.

He wanted to say more, but he was too busy being slammed against the launch seat as the Alexandria flipped on its axis and vented fuel to force a swift deceleration. They stopped short just before impact. The hull trembled as the ships bumped airlocks.

“Magnets on,” Kaitlin ordered. The ships locked together.

Deren sucked in air as his lungs expanded after their sudden release from the g’s that had been stacked on his chest. The other vessel was slightly larger than the Alexandria, probably designed for a crew of between two and seven. He stared at its tail markings. A series of nail and chevron shapes where the alphanumeric code should be. “Look at its markings. Does anyone else see that?”

“Shit,” Kaitlin announced, glaring at the viewscreen, “they’re already powering up their temporal drive. We’re onto Plan B.”

“Kaitlin, look at its markings,” Deren said.

“Hold on. We’ve transferred our momentum to the target. Maryam, get us stabilized.” Kaitlin unlatched her harness. “The rest of you, grab your gear. We can’t lose them before we know what we’re dealing with.”

“Or let them pull us into whatever time they’re heading to,” Roger added.

Deren hooked himself to a grab bar beside Roger in the airlock while Kaitlin snapped shaped charges to the target vessel’s locked hatch. He heard his breath in his helmet, felt the chill as his envirosuit absorbed his sweat. The door burst outward with a scorching flash and a percussive roar.

“We’re in,” Kaitlin said. Roger unhooked himself and pushed through the opening. Deren and Kaitlin followed just behind.

Roger convulsed and flew toward starboard. Deren entered the cockpit as an unfamiliar-looking rifle swung in his direction. The wielder had wedged himself into the doorway leading to the cockpit.

Deren kicked off the wall and launched himself forward. The rifle’s muzzle flashed. Deren dropped his pistol as it liquified in the plasma blast. Then he was against the crewman, grappling for the rifle. A knife slashed toward him from the man’s other hand.

Deren blocked the blow, forearm to forearm. The inertia thrust him back. Another man emerged through the doorway above the first, wielding the same type of double-edged knife. Kaitlin swam in front of Deren and twisted the rifle out of the first crewmen’s hands. Their struggle momentarily blocked the doorway.

Deren tried to orient himself. The layout, the fixtures—everything about the ship was wrong.

Kaitlin half-twisted, half-somersaulted around the man and locked her arms around his neck until he went limp. Deren had a moment to register the foreignness of her assailant’s tight-fitting clothing. The unfamiliarity of the quick burst of martial arts he’d employed. Then Kaitlin and her antagonist tumbled away and the second crewman propelled himself through the suddenly-open doorway.

Deren fought back, the knife slicing the air in front of his face. They spun away from the cabin. Kaitlin pushed herself to them, wrenched the crewman’s arms behind his back and zip-tied his wrists together.

Deren palmed the wall to stop himself from spinning and caught his breath. He shouldn’t have diverted his attention. Zoey was no longer there to watch his back.

He maneuvered the zip-tied man to one of four chairs that were bolted to the floor. His prisoner shook his head back and forth and shouted at them in a language Deren didn’t understand.

“It sounds like Hebrew,” he told Kaitlin on an open channel as he bound the prisoner to the chair.

He retrieved the unconscious crewman and guided his body to another chair. He twisted wire around his wrists and ankles. The strangeness of the ship’s design, the cryptic tail markings, a language they couldn’t speak—none of it made sense. He couldn’t think of any group or country that would have produced them, either on present-day Earth or in any of the lost timelines that he’d seen.

“It’s not Hebrew,” Kaitlin said, scanning the exits. “It sounds closer to Syriac, but I don’t think that’s it either.” Zoey was the only one of their crew who could have conversed in Latin or Sanskrit, but Kaitlin was fluent in about half a dozen other languages, and being generally familiar with historical tongues was part of the job description.

Maryam appeared through the airlock. “Roger’s in bad shape. I pulled him back to the medical pod.”

Kaitlin looked like she wanted to ask more, but she just set her jaw and nodded. “We need to sweep the ship. Deren, watch the prisoners and stay by the airlock.”

The prisoner kept yelling after the women others were gone. Deren tried out greetings in every language he knew and a few that he didn’t, repeating them from a translation app that apparently wasn’t able to decipher the man’s ranting. The man just shouted louder.

How did an interplanetary pilot not know a single UN language?

Kaitlin came back into the room. “The ship’s secure. But there’s a blinking light in the cockpit. The control panels are all wrong, but if the tech is anything like ours, I think it means the ship is prepped for a time jump.”

Deren looked away from the prisoners. “But it can’t jump without someone inputting coordinates, right?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out. But Maryam just pinged me that she found something. She’s in the cargo hold in the stern. Can you go see what she’s talking about?”

The cargo hold took up almost the entire stern of the ship. Just like on the Alexandria. And like the Alexandria’s, this hold was filled with display cases fastened to the walls beside towers of crates. They were smaller versions of the display cases kept in the vaults and great halls of their sponsor Collectors back on Earth. Maryam floated in the middle of the chamber, her helmet clipped to her belt, her hair a black halo around her face, gazing at the contents of the cases in awe.

“Deren,” she said in a soft voice, “look around us.”

At any other time, Deren would have wanted to know what had her so impressed. Instead, he froze in the doorway, torn between confronting her about Zoey and telling her everything he’d seen. Maryam saw him staring and returned his gaze. Then her eyes dropped and she took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I miss Zoey too.”

It wasn’t an admission of responsibility. It wasn’t really an apology. It wasn’t anything he needed.

But she meant it. He and Maryam had spent half a decade squeezing past each other in cramped quarters and watching each other’s backs on risky raids. She was one of the few people who knew what the universe was like when they’d started. He looked at her and knew she felt, if not the exact same pain he did, then something closely related to it. There was no reason to try to make her feel worse.

“I know,” he forced himself to say. “It’s not your fault.”

“I’m going to find a way to fix things.”

Deren clenched his jaw, all the magnanimity he’d just prided himself on suddenly vanished. Zoey was gone. That couldn’t be fixed.

Maryam must have seen his renewed tension, but she ignored it and pushed herself closer to him. “Please,” she said. “Look around.”

Deren knew every artifact back in the Alexandria’s hold. Each represented a different mission, tokens they’d kept while giving the Collectors the artifacts they’d paid for. There was the mounted commemorative coin of the Iroquois Confederacy’s first landing on Mars, showing the spacecraft Ayenwatha. There was the gilded map partitioning the New World between the Ming Dynasty, the Empire of Mali and the Kingdom of Norway. There was one of his favorites, a hand-cranked projector that played the jerky film of the first flight of the Hoopoe, the ludicrously massive ornithopter co-commissioned by the Eastern Roman Empire and the Safavid dynasty, shortly before its doomed mission to rain Baghdad with Greek Fire. Souvenirs stolen from worlds that had never been.

At first glance, the mementoes here appeared the same. But the closer he looked, the stranger he realized they were.

The first thing he noticed was the writing. With a few exceptions that might have been ancient Chinese seal script, it was almost all the same: the wedge-shaped slashes characteristic of cuneiform. It was on nearly every book cover, plaque and diagram.

“The spoken language isn’t in our system,” Maryam said. “But the translator says the text is related to ancient Akkadian.”

Akkadian. Of course: the ship’s tail markings had been cuneiform as well, but so stylized that he hadn’t recognized it. He pulled up his own translator and browsed through historical examples. The rest of the script might have changed over the millennia, but the numerical symbols were still close to what they’d been in ancient Mesopotamia. “The ship’s tail code is the same as ours.” He looked up at her. “That means…this ship must come from a timeline where we didn’t exist, because it did instead.”

She didn’t answer. Obviously, she had already come to the same conclusion.

Deren paddled to an ornate bronze globe encased in glass. None of the country borders were familiar. He looked up at holograms displayed by a set of rectangular metal plates. The buildings and monuments, the clothing—none of it looked like anything he had ever seen before. The images must have been of Earth, some version of Earth, but they might as well have come from a different planet.

There was a simple rule of thumb for time travel: the further back in time you made a change, the bigger the impact would be on your apparent present. Their biggest fear was making a change so great there was nothing to come back to.

“They made changes bigger than anything we’ve ever dared,” Maryam said.

Deren’s eyes returned to the globe.

“We’re used to being the ones to change the timeline,” Maryam said.

Deren shook his head. “To make changes that get from this—” he gestured at the globe— “to what the world is today, the crew of this ship would have had to have gone back thousands of years.” That must have been one of the reasons they were near Jupiter; the bigger gravity well would enable jumps further back in time. “We can’t do that. The timeline they came from must have been more technologically advanced than anything we’ve ever seen.”

Questions crowded his mind. What was the world like, where they’d come from? Were there Collectors in their timeline, as well? Did they work for a government? Or were they on their own?

“That’s the obvious conclusion,” Maryam agreed. “They created our timeline.”

It wasn’t until that moment that the implications hit him. “That means…” He stared at the room around them.

“We remember our lives before this moment. We remember all the other ways our world used to be. And all those things really happened. But it all came from a single change they made. From their perspective, the change that brought us into being could have been made yesterday. Or an hour ago.”

Pieces started fitting together. “They must have seen that the new timeline included an alternate version of their ship.”


“So, they started looking for ways to get rid of us.”

Maryam nodded. “Like the bomb on our last mission.”

Deren drew in his breath.

“Their first changes were probably experiments to find out how to get the results they wanted in an unfamiliar timeline. But if they had completed their jump just now…who knows?”

The Alexandria crew might never have met. He might never have been born.

He shook his head and let himself exhale. “But we still have a temporal drive, and Kaitlin is disabling theirs. Whatever happens next, it’s up to us.”

The decision of what to do with the Akkadian ship sparked the biggest disagreement Deren could remember them having. It started before they’d even gotten the prisoners off the vessel.

“As long as it exists, it’s a threat to our timeline,” Maryam said. “We have to destroy it.”

Kaitlin shook her head. “We collect artifacts of lost civilizations. This is the greatest artifact we’ve even seen. With unbelievable technology.”

“Technology that someone will figure out how to reverse engineer. And then we’ll have two ships changing the past. Or more. One is enough.” Beneath her breath, Maryam added, “Maybe more than enough.”

“And what about the prisoners?” Kaitlin asked before Deren could parse Maryam’s last comment. “For all we know, they know how to design a new drive. Are we going to kill them?”

They all looked at the two prisoners, still tied to the chairs, watching them with a fury that didn’t need translation.

“We don’t have time to work this all out,” Deren said. “We have to get Roger help. We’ve erased entire civilizations; we can scuttle one ship. But we can take the prisoners with us and figure out what to do with them later.”

Kaitlin considered this. “Fine. Let’s recover some of their artifacts and then set the ship on autopilot for Jupiter.”

Sorting through and “recovering” all the artifacts they wanted took almost an hour, by which point Deren’s impatience was so great it almost had him dropping things. But they all loved history, especially histories that had never happened, and each wanted a souvenir. The bulk of the artifacts they took were sure to sell for astronomical sums to the Collectors.

“Let’s go,” Kaitlin said finally. She climbed into the cockpit and set the autopilot. As soon as she was back out, she and Maryam each released the prisoners from their chairs.

Instantly, they twisted and kicked out of the women’s grasps. Momentum propelled them toward a handle on the wall. The first man hit the wall sideways, and covered the handle with his bound hands.

The lights went out and alarms blared. Deren turned on his spotlight, which joined beams from Kaitlin and Maryam, but their erstwhile prisoners were already gone. Kaitlin reached the handle and tried to turn it. It didn’t move. She pounded the heel of her other hand against the bulkhead.

“It must be a saferoom,” Maryam said.

Kaitlin stopped trying to get through. “OK. Everyone. Abandon ship.”

They made it through their airlock and disconnected the magnets just before the Akkadian ship fired its engines and began its acceleration down toward Jupiter’s atmosphere.

“I disabled the autopilot after I set it,” Kaitlin said. “It doesn’t matter how advanced that ship is; it’s not coming back.”

They dropped Roger off at a critical care facility on Earth’s moon. Roger begged them not to. He didn’t want to risk getting lost like Zoey.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Maryam said when they were back in the ship.

“I know that,” Deren answered. “But it doesn’t make it any easier to leave one of us behind.”

Maryam’s eyes flared with the same anger he’d glimpsed when they’d left Zoey. “Every time we jump, we leave people behind. We leave billions of people behind, and we don’t know what will happen to them. We just don’t have to think about it.”

Maryam planned their next mission and Kaitlin approved it before they left orbit.

“We’re not ready to go back out yet,” Deren insisted to Kaitlin. “We haven’t even replaced Zoey and Roger is out of commission.”

“We need time to mourn and regroup,” Kaitlin agreed, “but this is a quick, low-risk mission for one of our most important Collectors. We can’t turn it down.”

Kaitlin believed the proper response to tragedy or setback was to work harder. But Maryam’s rationale made less sense. In the short time since they’d returned from the Akkadian ship, she’d appeared even more impatient to get underway than usual.

“What’s the destination?” Deren asked her in the map room.

“2083 CE.”

He knew that year was significant, but he couldn’t remember why. “I’m not understanding the mission.”

“Corporate espionage. Koizumi wants us to introduce a trojan horse to a university server so someone can remotely access the data.” Shoko Koizumi was a prominent Collector and frequent client.

“Kaitlin said that. But what’s the change we’re introducing? What artifact are we supposed to collect first?”

“There is no artifact this time.”

“No artifact? Then why are we going?”

“He’s paying us.”

“We don’t—” Deren cut himself off as he saw Maryam’s face start to close for an argument. He wanted her to talk to him, to explain what the urgency was. “I’ll start plotting the course.” He waved his hand and the contoured map of three-dimensional space in front of them expanded into a ladder of chronological slices of space-time.

“That’s the year the temporal drive was patented,” he remembered suddenly. “Twenty eighty-three.” Maryam nodded. “It was Harvard scientists.” He frowned. “Koizumi’s family firm was conducting similar research, but Harvard patented the technology and their corporate partners got there first. Is that what this is about?”

“I didn’t ask for his motivation.”

“We can’t get involved in the Collectors’ power struggles. If they start to think we’re picking sides, the whole system falls apart.”

“Like I said, I didn’t ask for his motivation.”

“We all know the Collectors want things no one else has. They want to be able to show off impossible items. But changing history in order to make someone more powerful, or richer…that’s not what we do.” As he said it, it sounded ridiculous in his own ears. It’s what he had told himself countless times. But even before they’d handed over the World Council Charter, a part of him had recognized that the Collectors had always done whatever it was they wanted. “You ran this by Kaitlin? Does she know what he’s hiring us for?”

“She knows.”

“Even if this were a normal mission, it’s still too soon. I know Kaitlin doesn’t agree with that, but I thought you would.”

Maryam took a moment to respond. “Do you still need me to prove I care about her?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Zoey was one of us. You brought her onto the ship, so I know whatever I feel, it’s even worse for you. But Deren, one way or another, we lose something after every mission.”

He knew that. That was half the reason they were on this ship. So they wouldn’t be the ones to get lost. “Is that what this is? We’re doing another mission now so we can forget what just happened?”

“No. I…I need to fix it.”

“You mean bring back Zoey?”

“No. You know that’s not possible.”

“Then fix what? How will leaving now fix anything?”

After a pause, she said, “I told you about growing up in Houston. I only survived because I knew one day I’d get out. The same things everyone hated me for—the connections only I seemed able to see, my love of math—those would be my keys.” The four-dimensional topography of space-time stretched around them. She reached out as if to touch the virtual landscape, but stopped with her fingers hovering just above the surface. “I didn’t just get out. I changed it. The timeline I grew up in no longer exists. Some of the people I went to school with are still here. But even though they don’t know it, their original universe is gone.” She withdrew her hand.

“Do you wish you could go back?”

“Even if I could, it wouldn’t stay the same, would it? That’s one of the first things you told me. Nothing stands still.” She stretched out her hand again and it went through the map. An icon representing their ship was always at the center, but coordinates streamed past it in an unending flow.

“That’s true. We’re always moving through time or space.” They were getting closer to what was troubling her. Closer to whatever was pushing her to go out again so soon.

She reached into one of her jacket pocket and pulled out a battered photograph. It showed a boy of about seventeen.

“He looks like you.”

“My little brother.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“I don’t.” She slipped the photo back into her pocket. “I spent my whole life looking out for him, protecting him from bullies. Then we came back from our first mission and in our new timeline, he’d never existed.”

“I’m sorry.”

She stared at him. It seemed like she wanted to tell him something. “Why does Koizumi’s mission upset you?”

That wasn’t what he’d been expecting. He tried to consider the question anyway. “Maybe it doesn’t. We change the whole world so rich people have something to show off at dinner parties.” Maybe they would stop when they found a world worth saving. But Zoey thought they already had, and it vanished anyway. “Is corporate espionage worse than that?”

She nodded and pressed her fingers over the pocket holding the picture, refastening the Velcro. Whatever it was she might have been about to tell him, she’d decided not to say it.

Before he strapped himself in for the jump, Deren tapped the framed vinyl hanging in the map room for luck. It was the live album from Buddy Holly’s 1960s psychedelic phase, a memento from the one timeline he’d almost wanted to stay in.

“Minus three seconds from periapsis,” Maryam announced through the speakers.

Kaitlin’s voice: “I’m releasing the anchors.” Deren saw them appear on the map: a quartet of flashing points that would tether the ship and keep it oriented to facilitate navigation. Three that were necessary to maintain their orientation, plus one for redundancy. When they were ready to return, they’d follow the tethers back.

Maryam: “Minus one.”

“Go-time,” Kaitlin said. “Burning engines. Temporal drive engaged.”

Deren felt his whole body tighten, his lungs, his heart, waiting to hear that his AI-guided calculations had been correct.

Their icon shifted on the map. Deren relaxed.

“We’re reading AD 2083,” Kaitlin declared.

2083 CE, Zoey would have insisted. As Roger once pointed out, no one else cared which calendar notation they used, but Kaitlin and Zoey had jointly cared enough for all of them.

They left the Alexandria camouflaged in orbit and landed the shuttle in a wooded park that their map labelled Beaver Brook Reservation. “Deren has the shuttle, and Maryam’s mission lead on this one,” Kaitlin said.

Maryam stepped forward. “I’ll need both of you.”

Kaitlin shook her head. “Someone always guards the shuttle.”

“We need three people.”

“Then we’ll need to revise the plan. You know we don’t leave the shuttle unguarded.”


“Maryam. Every additional minute in the past increases our risk of exposure. How’s our timing?”

Maryam’s hands clenched and unclenched. “From here, it’s 45 minutes to the LISE Building’s quantum gravity research center.” She pulled out a small, square-shaped device with a short cable. “This will supply the Trojan Horse to the server. I’ll need four minutes, in and out. I was able to forge ID cards using historical records. But I’ll need both of you to guard the exits.”

“You can have me,” Kaitlin said.

Deren stepped forward. He’d made up his mind when they’d learned about the Akkadian ship: he was done waiting to find out what was going to happen, done waiting for other people to take risks for him. “I have the technical knowledge. In case anything goes wrong, it needs to be me.”

Kaitlin nodded after a brief pause. “Fine. Deren goes, I’ll stay. I’m sorry, Maryam, but you know we’re down two crew members. We’ll just have to improvise.”

The air outside tasted like Earth, like plants and soil and limitless sky. Somewhere in the distance was flowing water.

They’d only covered a hundred meters when Maryam stopped and glanced back. The shuttle was already hidden from view by birch and maple trees. “This would be a lot easier if Kaitlin were with us.”

Her voice was tight. Deren glanced from her anxious eyes to the black box in her hand. “What’s wrong, Maryam?”

“She wasn’t supposed to stay in the shuttle.”

“Let me see the device you’re holding.”

“I have to get her.” Maryam turned and ran back toward the landing site.

There was a boom from behind the trees. It sounded like the sky had split open, followed almost instantly by noise like a hailstorm. Shrapnel against trees.

Deren climbed to his feet and stumbled back until he could see the blaze where the shuttle had been. A swirl of flames twisted up from shredded plastic and metal, spiraling around a toxic column of black smoke. On the ground were shredded pieces of hull, along with a leg wearing Kaitlin’s charred boot. Closer to the fire, an arm. There’d been no screams. It had been too quick.

Somehow, he was on his knees. Maryam. Where was Maryam? He used a tree trunk to pull himself back to his feet. Its bark had been torn apart by shrapnel.

Maryam was sprawled on the ground beyond a line of birches. A triangle of jagged metal, roughly the size of his hand, was lodged in her skull behind her temple.

“I’m sorry.” Her voice sounded a thousand kilometers away, through the rush of blood pumping in Deren’s ears. “I didn’t want any of you to get hurt.”

“There’s life support on the ship.” He realized the futility of those words as soon as he said them. How could he move her? How could they get to the ship without the shuttle?

“I set the same detonators in the Alexandria. I’m sorry.”

Deren almost toppled again as the implications hit him. Without the Alexandria, there was no way to untether the Collectors. Each was still trapped in their own personal time bubble. A cell from which they could never escape and in which they would never die.

But right now, the only thing that mattered was Maryam. He knelt beside her and looked down at her rapidly blinking eyes. “Give me a few minutes. There must be hospitals nearby.”

Maryam’s words came out too slowly, as if she had to consider each one and force it out before she could get to the next. “Where’s the last bomb?”

“I don’t—” He realized what she meant. He picked up the black box lying on the ground next to her.

Her hair was wet. Blood. “I tried to get her out of the ship. I didn’t want anyone hurt. But I couldn’t warn…I wouldn’t….” She made a choking sound as she caught her breath. “None of you would have come here if you knew what I was planning.”

He wanted to reassure her, tell her it wasn’t her fault. But he thought of Kaitlin’s scorched leg and couldn’t speak.

“You need to plant it. So people will think the experiments…are too dangerous. With the data gone….” She closed her eyes.

“I need you to wait here. I’m going to find help.”

“They won’t know…how close they are. To the temporal drive.”

Deren’s heartbeat surged in his ears. He couldn’t tell how much of his panic was because of Kaitlin and Maryam and how much of it was being stranded here, caught in the linear current of time, unable ever to break free again. “We can’t destroy it.”

She opened her eyes. “It’s that. Or someone else builds an Alexandria. And they keep destroying the past. Like us. Again and again.”

“Maybe it deserves to be destroyed,” he said softly. Until we find something better.

Maryam stared at him. She breathed shallowly through her mouth.

She’d already had something better. Deren gently patted her jacket pockets until he felt the picture of her brother. He slid it out and held it up so she could see it. At the same time, he tightened his fingers around the bomb.

A world without the Collectors.

Or, maybe, a chance for the World Council to be born again. The world Zoey had most wanted could return, if he didn’t make any more changes, if he just walked away.

He held the future in that black box. He just had to decide what to do with it.