Three science prodigies go on a time-traveling adventure to save the Earth—if they don't accidentally destroy it first.
In 1891, Willa Marconi's life falls apart when her mentor at the University of Bologna unexpectedly dies. She loses her laboratory access and her stipend, but she refuses to let anyone take her research away. While testing her prototype radio equipment, she detects a mysterious signal and pursues its origin.
In 2034, a cataclysmic event has rendered the Earth uninhabitable, and humankind survives by living inside of artificial worlds. Riley would do anything for Jaideep, who lost his parents in the collapse of the Bay Area pocket universe—and anything includes building a time machine so they can travel back to the nineteenth century, prevent the destabilization of the planet, and rewrite history.
But the experiment goes wrong, accidentally pulling Willa forward in time and stranding the three of them in a strange, seemingly abandoned city. Now they've got a glitchy time machine, a scary android time cop hot on their trail, and some tangled temporal mechanics to unravel. Can they save the Earth when the Continuity Agency is dead-set on preserving the current timeline?
Release date: November 29, 2022
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Print pages: 352
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In the City of Time
2034, the artificial world of Greater Bostonia
RILEY SAT CROSS-LEGGED atop the hard black surface of a lab bench, using a document-scanner app on her phone to digitize a stack of research notes before feeding the hard copies into a paper shredder, one page at a time. Click of the camera, check the image, whir of the shredder eating the evidence. It was oddly satisfying.
Jaideep laughed at her from the doorway of the lab, then came over and planted a kiss on her shoulder. “You are having way too much fun doing that.”
Riley grinned. “Gotta take time to appreciate the simple pleasures in life.”
“Like destroying our paper trail?”
“It’s a perfectly reasonable precaution to make sure we don’t leave behind enough data that somebody else could come along and duplicate our work,” she said. “Also: kinda fun.”
“This the last of the spare parts?” Jaideep asked, tapping the cardboard box that sat beside her on the lab bench.
“Yeah. Mind carrying it in for me?”
Jaideep thumbed his phone to open a portal into the artificial pocket universe he’d programmed to serve as their mobile laboratory. A black hole irised open, cutting through the air in front of him; he hefted the cardboard box and stepped into it, vanishing from this world a moment before the portal winked shut with a soft whoosh.
As Riley watched him go, it started to sink in that their years of preparation and months of careful construction were finally coming to a close. They were actually going to use the machine. All their hard work would either bear fruit … or go horribly awry. It had been easy to stay laser focused on the theoretical research, and after that on the task of building the prototype, but soon they would be faced with the uncertainty of a live test. Riley had already done everything she could to control the outcome, and now it was a roll of the dice—they were way out at the bleeding edge of experimental physics, and there was no way for her to plan for every contingency. The lingering unpredictability of what they would soon attempt clawed at her nerves and made her chest feel tight.
Riley squeezed her eyes shut and slowed her breathing as a shield against the sharp edges of anxiety closing in on all sides. Focus on the
goal, remember the reasons. She had long ago figured out that home wasn’t a physical place so much as the feeling you get from being with the people you love. Riley’s home was Jaideep; he was all she needed. But Jaideep’s home—a significant part of it, at least—was gone, and that was a state of reality that Riley simply refused to accept. Jaideep didn’t deserve to lose his family, and Riley would move mountains for this boy.
Or, if needed, break the laws of physics.
A portal opened again, Jaideep stepping back into the room. Riley tried to relax the tension in her shoulders before he could notice, but he clocked her near panic with the ease of years of practice. “Hey, you good?”
“Yeah, just … wooo, this is really happening.” Riley fiddled with her phone, turning it in her hands like a spinner toy. “Did you, um, did you tell Annalise we’re leaving?”
“Not yet. Thought I’d text her from the train station.”
“Right. Probably better to wait.”
They’d asked Annalise to come with them. Jaideep had only been dating her for about six months, not as long as Riley and Jaideep had been together, but she’d become important to both of them. Annalise hadn’t reacted the way they’d hoped.
“You can’t—it’s done, Ri, there’s no undoing it,” Annalise said. “This is crazy. What you’re trying to do here is crazy.”
Riley often called herself crazy, but she didn’t particularly enjoy it when other people did so. She cocked an eyebrow, challenging. “You gonna report us to the administration, Lise?”
“No.” Annalise sighed. “But I’m sure as shit not going to help you get yourselves killed toying with physics you don’t understand.”
“At this point, I’m probably one of the world’s foremost experts on temporal theory,” Riley said—not a brag, just a statement of fact.
“God, that’s the scariest part, Ri.”
Riley swallowed the little bubble of guilt that tried to make itself known when she thought about Annalise. Jaideep had lost so much when they were fourteen, and now he’d lost Annalise, too, and Riley couldn’t help but feel partially responsible for this most recent gut punch. The whole scheme was her idea—she’d effectively driven Annalise away.
Jaideep rubbed a hand up and down her spine, soothing. “It’s not your fault, Ri. You can’t control the choices other people make.”
Soon it wouldn’t matter anyway. The things she could control were so much bigger than that. Assuming their machine worked.
“I hate this part.” Riley gnawed on her thumbnail, seeking relief from the nervousness building up inside. She should’ve made Jaideep take the window seat. Maybe that would’ve been better.
“Come on, this is great! We’re finally on our way,” he said. When she answered this with a glare, he added, “It’ll be over quick.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” she told him, attempting a smile.
The maglev train hummed to life and eased forward so smoothly it was disorienting. The window showed Riley nothing but the North
Union Station platforms, which seemed an anticlimactic last view of Greater Bostonia, the artificial pocket universe that had been her home all her life. The technology to create artificial worlds using a precisely composed handwritten script—or, in the digital age, a computer program—had existed for centuries, but it was largely treated as a scientific novelty. That was until 1891, when some kind of catastrophic experiment began to slowly destroy the earth. Greater Bostonia was one of the many programmed copies of real places that no longer existed. Artificial imitation though it might be, Greater Bostonia had been her reality, and it was hard to believe they were leaving forever; Riley didn’t know how to say goodbye to a world that, if they succeeded in their mission, would cease to have ever been necessary.
“Are you eating your fingers again?” Jaideep joked, gently redirecting her hand away from her mouth in order to hold it between his own.
Riley said, “Hey, if I chew my nails off, I don’t have to worry about cleaning under them.”
“Silver lining.” He squeezed her hand. “Seriously, you okay?”
“Too late to back out now,” she said. The train steadily gained momentum; at the end of the short line, a large black hole in reality irised open and swallowed the train.
The emptiness between worlds was blacker than black, a suffocating nonexistence that seemed to press against the window, unpenetrated by the train’s interior lights. Riley tried not to look at it. Even though maglev was a smooth ride, she’d swear her stomach could tell the difference here, where no magnets were required because there was nothing below them to levitate off.
We aren’t meant to live this way. The thought rose unbidden in Riley’s mind, though she’d felt it to be true for a long time. These poorly connected human-made worlds were all humanity had left, and the loss of everything real was almost too great to comprehend.
They suddenly emerged into the light and sound and motion of another world, the artificial sky above an intense cloudless blue, the view full of craggy mountains towering over vineyard-covered foothills. The train gently decelerated and pulled into the Verona station of Venice-Verona, but Riley and Jaideep were waiting for the next stop.
“I wonder if that’s actually what the real Alps looked like,” Riley mused.
“They might’ve found a photograph to copy,” Jaideep offered, as if he wanted to believe in this world’s accuracy.
The real Alps were gone; the epicenter of the cataclysm had been somewhere in the mountains near the western edge of the Austrian Empire, and the initial blast had destabilized the fundamental physical properties of matter and energy in the whole region, including the original Verona. This city was a memorial populated by the descendants of refugees, since few if any native Veronese had survived. The first wave in a never-ending tragedy as the region of unstable physics spread outward like a disease, slowly devouring nearly the entire planet over the course of decades.
Riley swallowed against the tightness in her throat. “This’ll work. We’re gonna bring it all back.”
Jaideep gave her a long look, his brown eyes deep as wells, full of sadness tempered with resolve. “Have I said thank you enough?”
“It’s not just for you.” Riley leaned her shoulder into his. “Okay, mostly. But not like one hundred percent for you.”
“In that case, I’ll make sure to give you only eighty-proof gratitude, instead of that double-distilled, ultra-pure gratitude.”
“No Gratitude 151 for me? But what if I want to set it on fire?” she said as the train pulled smoothly out of the station.
“Why does everything need to be flammable with you?”
“If I learned one thing from the chem majors, it’s that there are two sources of joy in the worlds: lighting things on fire, and dipping things in liquid nitrogen.”
Jaideep shook his head in mock disappointment. “You’re in physics. You should stay loyal to your tribe, and have fun by burning holes in stuff with lasers.”
The city of Verona blurred by, a dense collection of three- and four-story-tall, red-tile-roofed buildings, capturing the essence if not the exact anatomy of its vanished namesake on Earth. A minute past the edge of the city came the shoreline, then the maglev guideway took them out over the open sea. In the distance, Riley could see one final edge: the purple-gray haze of Edgemist, which formed the boundary of Venice-Verona. Programmed pocket universes were finite in size, with the margins marked by a wall of swirling cloud, beyond which there was nothing but a void of nonexistence. In a larger world like Greater Bostonia—which was about twenty miles wide—there were plenty of places in the interior where the Edgemist was out of sight, but never completely forgotten. Riley sometimes tried to imagine, as an intellectual exercise, what it would be like to have the vast, unending, unapproachable horizons of Earth. She’d seen photos taken in the mid-twentieth century, when more of the real world was still intact, but a static image couldn’t really translate into the experience of a horizon that forever retreats no matter how fast you travel.
Riley snuck a glance at Jaideep—he definitely had Pensive Face, and she wondered if he was also brooding over the magnitude of what humanity had lost. She internally debated whether she should draw him out into a conversation or let him chew on his thoughts. But Riley was the one whose mind liked to chase its own tail, so she decided to be patient and give him the space to work through whatever he was mulling over. He wasn’t having second thoughts; she knew him well enough to trust that.
The train swayed side to side as it switched to a semi-flexible guideway and then angled to the right, and Riley got her first good view of Venice.
The architectural style showed influence from the old city, with rows upon rows of narrow, arched Gothic windows, but this Venice literally floated on the sea. Motorized gondolas zipped through waterways, while high above, pedestrians crossed on elegant footbridges. The train passed an expanse of red buoys—probably marking a kelp farm—and pulled into the Venice station.
Physical luggage was out of fashion in Greater Bostonia, so Riley and Jaideep had nothing but their phones to carry with them. The station was large and the sea calm, but Riley could still feel a certain
lack of solidity through the soles of her sneakers, as if the floating building were threatening to rock back and forth. They navigated through the interior to the docks, and she used a transit app to hail an automated gondola.
As they waited for their ride, Riley felt the anxious anticipation growing inside her like one of those horror movie monsters that could violate conservation of mass. Inexplicably expanding.
Jaideep nudged her with his elbow. “You gonna psych yourself out?”
“Me? Cave to stress? Never, I don’t know what you mean.” She grinned to show him the self-deprecation didn’t run too deep.
“Listen.” He turned to face her full on, resting his hands on her upper arms. “You got this; we got this. The rest of the universe is rolling snake eyes today, cuz nobody builds a physics-bending machine like you. Hear me?”
She pushed out a slow, controlled breath; there was no stress monster inside her chest, just lungs. Today was not the day to be her own worst enemy.
Riley bounced onto her toes and kissed him quickly as the gondola arrived. “Whatever you say, jaanu.” The word was a common term of endearment, but it meant life—someone as dear as life itself—and Riley had never meant it more literally than she did just now. “Let’s go back and save the earth.”
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