Everything began with a crazy lady who landed her spaceship on Sam’s roof deck early one morning and said, “Oh, thank god. I was starting to think I’d never find the girl to fix this broken timeline.” Adjusting the neck of her blue silk cheongsam, she peered over her copper-wire spectacles at Sam. “You are Sam Wang, correct?”
“That depends,” said Sam, who’d been unpinning the laundry, and was now going to be late to work, thanks to this weird spaceship lady. “Are you here to steal my identity and/or murder me?”
“Of course not,” snapped the spaceship lady. “I’m Mei-Li. I’m here to–”
“– fix the broken timeline, yes, you already said.” Sam tossed a mostly-dry sundress over one shoulder, pausing to scratch at the scar on her ear, where she’d once caught the wrong end of a whip. “I don’t know that you’ll have much luck, Mei-Li. The timeline broke a long time ago.”
“Feh,” scoffed Mei-Li. “Am I a time traveler or aren’t I?”
“I’m guessing you mean that rhetorically.” Time travel explained the spaceship, at least. It was a pretty thing, pale and glowing, humming with faint blue light that lit up the grimy tiles of the roof deck. The colors on all Mei-Li’s trappings–the spaceship, the spectacles, the cheongsam–more than anything, were what tipped Sam off.
“One of the very last,” said Mei-Li.
“By which you mean one of two,” said Sam, folding the dress.
“You see why I have a need for you, then.”
“I did anticipate that the only other time traveler left in the universe might be an asshole,” observed Mei-Li, wrinkling her nose. “Fine, then. You clearly aren’t the sort who jumps at the chance to make history. What do you want instead?”
“To get to work less than ten minutes late, so as to avoid another whipping.”
Mei-Li blinked several times behind her spectacles. “That sentence right there,” she said, “is everything broken about this timeline.”
“The Hands of Grey care very much about efficiency. Everything else is a distraction from orderliness. The whips are a means to an end, to prevent senseless deviations.”
“My word, you just had to make it worse, didn’t you? What was the last whipping for?”
“Traces of unauthorized dye in my frock.”
“And before that?”
“Singing under my breath at work.”
Sam shrugged. “A silly song in an old language my mother taught me.” Even now, the half-forgotten strains of music ached beneath the phantom sting of the whip on her shoulders. “I should have known better, really.”
“This is no way to live.”
Sam knotted a hand around the comforting grey linen of the drying sundress, the blue properly bled from the fabric now, on its third washing. “You can get used to anything. It’s how human brains are wired.”
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” retorted Mei-Li, scowling ferociously at the formerly-blue frock. “Look, how’s this? Let’s just go back to the Walled City–”
“The Walled City!”
“Relax, I mean the summer before the city fell. I don’t expect you to battle the Hands of Grey. I just want you to meet someone.”
Sam hugged her elbows. “What about work?”
“I’ll compensate you for the day, how’s that? And, bonus, I’ll get you back here say, twenty-five minutes before we met, so you can finish folding the laundry and make it to your work with five minutes to spare. No worries about whips to be had. A good deal, isn’t it?”
It was a good deal. Sam, gnawing at her lip, considered that. “I stopped flying time travelers’ spaceships as a child. I’m not sure I remember how.”
“Silly girl,” cried Mei-Li, seizing Sam’s elbow. “Who do you think is going to be in the pilot’s seat of my own ship?”
Without quite deciding to, Sam tumbled after Mei-Li aboard the time-traveling spaceship, dragged into its blue-glowing depths. The sundress remained behind, half-folded upon the grey and grimy roof.