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.
The spaceship spits Sam out on the stoop of a pub, painted a garish, cheerful shade of red, which sets off alarm bells inside Sam’s head, drowned out by a cheesy rock ballad as soon as the pub doors crash open. Color assaults Sam’s eyes like a tidal wave when she stumbles inside: a black girl in a violently purple wig, arm-in-arm with a tall, bleach-blonde drink of water; a couple Asian boys, one in turquoise, the other in a burgundy-checkered shirt, playing pool across from the bar; some person of indeterminate gender but the greenest, most mermaid-worthy hair, and the darkest skin Sam’s ever seen, sipping something orange enough to be highlighter ink.
It’s a Walled City when walls were still decorative. It’s a city Sam’s dreamed of, but never known. Sam holds her hands before her eyes; her skin looks like painted gold. She whirls, blinking rapidly, half-expecting, half-fearing the grey of her rooftop, and instead, spills someone’s wine all over his sky-blue Henley.
“Oh!” Sam can’t quite hear her own cry of dismay over the jukebox tune’s guitar riff. “Pardon me.”
The owner of the sky-blue shirt, now wine-red, sets aside his glass to inspect the ruined Henley with careful, copper-tanned fingers. His eyebrows curve toward her. “Pardon granted.” Amusement shades his features, red on copper spilled over high cheekbones when he smiles. In another time, she thinks she’d call him nondescript: average height, average shape, forgettably handsome in the way of young men who haunted ironically trendy pubs before the Hands of Grey. But in the time-that-is-right-now, she’s stuck on the colors of him, the way they sigh and blend as he moves, the whisper of ruined sky-blue over his shoulders in a frisson specific to this moment. His hair, curling over his forehead, is lighter than his eyes, and looks bronze beneath the pub lights. Sam can’t stop staring.
“I’m Max,” says this boy-made-of-colors, in this room-made-of-colors. He pitches his voice a bit, to drown out the jukebox wail, but his name catches on Sam’s ear.
“I’m Sam,” she hears herself say.
“Really.” Flecks of gold buried in dark eyes. He shakes his head, face split in two by a sudden, curious grin. “I could swear I knew someone with your eyes, once. Different name, same eyes.”
The line, which should come out cheesy, sounds so casually earnest that Sam finds herself grinning back. “Another time, another place, I guess. Come on.” Moved by inexplicable inspiration, she tucks her fingers under the crook of that sky-blue shirt. “Let’s go drink some of that weird orange shit.”
“I told you, didn’t I?”
Back on the spaceship, Mei-Li puckered red-painted lips at Sam. The expression reminded Sam a bit of her mother, when Mama used to tease, when Sam was little, before color bled from the world. “I told you,” Mei-Li repeated. “You’d know Max when you saw him.”
Sam’s heartbeat, enhanced by three shots of that orange drink, pounded against her eardrums. “Why him?” Even now, her own voice sounded distant, tinny.
Mei-Li’s eyes, lidded behind her spectacles, flicked sideways. Sam wasn’t sure how old the other time traveler was, but she looked older than Sam, the sleek black dye of Mei-Li’s hair rooted in grey, the brackets around her mouth faint but clearly permanent.
“Max is the lynchpin,” said Mei-Li. “His actions shape the timeline. You pull him the right way, and others will follow.” Her gaze lifted over the copper-wire frames. “You’re in his orbit now. You’ll see.”
Max is insufferable. Sam figures this much out pretty quickly. He doesn’t even have to try. His existence articulates color in beats of inhale and exhale, eruption of speech, and the course charted from every pair of eyes in the room toward his when his mouth parts. Something about him, life blended into pigment, demands your attention, inescapable as gravity.
“We know they’re coming,” he tells Sam, lean arm etched in light brown, slung around her, rainbows dancing through the merry slosh of their clinked glasses. “The Hands of Grey. We’ll be ready.”
A shiver runs down Sam’s spine, the ever-constant reminder that this world of color and noise is his present day, not hers. “And what will we do?”
“What we always do.” Gold, bright flecks in brown irises, shots of light through the dark. Somber eyes, bright smile. “We hold the Wall.”
A roar of agreement from his friends in the pub. From their friends. Sam blinks at the realization that she’s in this now, one of the many in their technicolor number, part of a whole.
You’re in his orbit now.
“And if the Wall falls?” Sam slurs her words, tries to sound drunk, hypothetical. If, not when.
“Then we fall with it,” says Max. “We fall, until others can rise again.”
Such finality, for an if, not a when. Sam tells him so, and Max rolls his eyes, calls her a cynic. She kicks his ankle. He knocks their shoulders together. Laughter. He’s more and more familiar to her, these days. No one ever tells time travelers what to do with this particular brand of inevitability. It’s not like there’s a handbook to begin with, a how-to for jumping your little blue spaceship across seconds and centuries. That much, you figure out by the years collected beneath your belt.
But this is something else: warmth in the crook of someone’s arm, the color of their crinkle-cornered eyes. It’s not a romance, exactly; Sam has never known how to fall for someone that way, how to want that particular curve of another body against yours, as so many others do. But here, still, is the subtle sneaking of another human being into your guarded heart, and that is worse, in some ways, than romance. Far worse than falling in love is meeting someone who might well be your first and greatest friend.
“Beauty’s song!” cries Max, head thrown back to the beat of a shifting jukebox melody.
Sam knows that song. She can’t place where from, but she knows it, and freezes, her hands closing around his. “What?”
“Beauty!” He’s mad, the gold in his dark eyes dancing with the rest of him. “Name of someone I met a million years ago, who sang this song.”
Something curdles behind Sam’s bones, a flicker of what’s half-forgotten. “You remember every random stranger who ever sang a song for you?” she yells over the crescendo.
“Nope!” he yells back. “Just the colorful ones!”
The songs, wonders Sam, or the strangers?
“Good question,” said Mei-Li, when Sam asked. “Next question.”
“No.” The word tasted strange and terrifying on Sam’s tongue. Some corner of her brain braced for the sting of a whip on her shoulders, or upside her head, or across an ear. None came.
Instead, Mei-Li’s hands paused on the spaceship’s dash. “Excuse me?”
Sam eyed the way the other time traveler’s fingers trembled. “No,” she repeated. The word tasted better now. “Not this time. What did he mean? Who was Beauty?”
“Why do you care?”
“I can’t remember!” snapped Sam. She rubbed her eyes, exhausted from drinking in color day in and day out, after more than half a lifetime’s world of grey. “I can’t explain what I’ve forgotten. But I’ve forgotten something important, Mei-Li. I know it.”
Mei-Li’s eyes went cold behind the spectacles. “If you can’t remember, then it’s not your right to know, now is it?”
Sam narrowed blurred eyes at the other time traveler. “We’ll see about that.”
Mei-Li’s hands fluttered upward, but Sam jerked past her and stabbed at the spaceship’s dash, muscle memory moving her fingers across the controls. Sam hadn’t flown a ship across time since the Walled City fell to the Hands of Grey, but some knowledge cannot be unburied from a time traveler’s bones.
“What are you doing?” shrieked Mei-Li, practically clawing at Sam’s shoulder.
“Remembering,” said Sam.
Headstones. When Sam stumbles out the spaceship this time, all she sees are headstones, endless rows of grey.
“You jumped forward,” croaks Mei-Li at her back. The other time traveler follows her through the dying grass, still clutching Sam’s shoulder. “Instead of backward.”
Sam understands all at once. “The Walled City stood here once.” She glances toward the colorless horizon, almost indistinguishable from the sprawling graveyard. “My apartment roof. My work. It’s all gone.”
“The Hands of Grey,” says Mei-Li. Even the colors of her spectacles and cheongsam look washed out on the backdrop of this future’s palate. “They knew how to conquer, and how to sow fear, but they never knew how to make people want to live. People aren’t automatons. Sooner or later?” She shrugs. “Without hope, they wither.”
“Without hope?” Sam sinks downward, knees knocking against a nameless headstone. “What about Max? The people at the pub? They were going to hold the Wall. They tried their best. Doesn’t anyone remember them?”
“Why should we?” Mei-Li’s voice is harsh. “They still died, just like everyone else.”
Sam’s fingers stroke the headstone, the grey cold beneath her skin. “The broken timeline.”
“I have watched the Walled City live through its final summer at least a dozen times,” says Mei-Li. “And every summer, over and over again, Max dies. The Wall falls. And the Hands of Grey lead us here. I thought, perhaps this time…” The implication trails off into nothing.
Slowly, Sam faces the other time traveler. “How did you know him? In the first timeline to break. The one where you first met. How did it happen?”
Mei-Li’s red-painted mouth twists. “Do you still want to remember?”
The spaceship jumps backwards. This time, Sam disembarks alone into a younger world, color garish on her gaze. She throws up a hand to shield her eyes and–
“Who are you?”
Sam looks down, and inhales, like glass sliding under skin. Golden flecks wink at her from the doe-dark eyes of the little boy at her waist. “Who are you?” repeats the child Max was, the boy-of-colors who will fight, the boy-of-colors who will die.
When her knees bend, Sam’s brain latches onto a speck of memory, something saved and shelved in years that exist on another plane of time. You can’t help but remember, sometimes, looking a child eye-to-eye, hands held small in your whip-scarred palms, that you were once so small yourself.
Before the Hands of Grey, in a world of colorful plurality, people spoke other languages. Before the Hands of Grey, Sam had a childhood, a mother who teased her daughter in two tongues, a woman with red lipstick who called after Sam in a forbidden, foreign, technicolor language, laughing, “my child, my precious one, my little beauty.”
Wo de xiao Mei-Li.
“I’m Beauty,” Sam tells the boy she’ll know as Max. Air hitches, expands inside her chest, glass-edged. “You can call me Beauty. If you’d like, I’ll sing you a very silly song.”
“How many versions of us are out there?” Sam asked Mei-Li, the spaceship shuddering blue around them.
“Just you,” said Mei-Li.
A beat, pregnant with all the things they’ll never say. “Somewhere between the sixth and seventh summers the Walled City fell, I thought it might be better, somewhere, some-when, if Max and I–”
Sam understood. “If he and I never met at all.”
Her elder self, this time-worn time traveler with the age-bracketed red mouth, leaned her head against the spaceship wall, replete with the history inside her bones. “Some mistakes, even time can’t correct.”
Time travelers operate by rules, just like everyone else. Certain cornerstones of history can’t be unmade. You’re not supposed to tell people their futures. All time-travelers know this. But when the only two time-travelers left in the universe are halves of one, does “supposed to” really matter anymore?
The cycles of the universe spin, heedless. The Hands of Grey march across the world, bleeding color from its inhabitants, until all that remains is a final city, colors contained within its walls, one last holdout. The Walled City, with its red-stooped pubs, its boys in blue Henleys, still blasts rock music from jukeboxes, and speaks of songs sung by way of girls who call themselves beauty in foreign tongues.
The Walled City breathes its final summer, bright-edged with sun, color and color and color.
Mei-Li met Max, once upon another timeline. She stole away aboard her spaceship a dozen times more, trying to unmake the summer of her best friend’s death. But never once did Mei-Li tell him his fate.
But Sam, who grew up in a world of grey after Max–after Max, not before; the befores and afters here are key–isn’t Mei-Li.
“You’ll die if you stay,” she whispers one night, back-to-back with him on the stoop of the pub. “You all will.”
The forbidden words hang in the thick summer air between them, like a secret spoken to the stars. Then Max says, “I know.”
Sam’s spine spasms along his. “You knew?”
“The Walled City was never going to hold out forever.” Even without seeing his face, she knows the shape of his smile in the curl of his words. “But time moves in cycles. And it’ll bend toward color again, one day. What’s important is to be where we can, standing together.”
“I don’t want–”
“– to die?”
To watch you die.
“They’ll forget you,” says Sam. “Time will forget you.”
His head shifts toward her, whisper of skin, eyelashes brushed against her cheek. “Will you?”
Sam curls her shoulders against his, memorizing warmth and muscle, pulse of the heart sustaining this temporary burst of life. Here is the time traveler’s curse: the moments of nothing that ever lasts. Not even your best friend twelve times over.
“I have to go,” says Sam.
Mei-Li’s crimson-lacquered nails scraped over Sam’s skin, when she squeezed their hands together. “It’ll be all right,” said Mei-Li. “We’ve tried so many times. There’s more of time and space to see than one doomed little pub in one doomed little city.” She squeezed tighter, the pressure strange and comforting when she added, a bit dryly, “Or did you want to finish folding your laundry?”
“No. Take me away. Anywhere but here.”
“Are you certain? Twenty-five minutes before we met, that was the deal we made–”
“Later,” said Sam. There is always later, for time travelers.
Mei-Li’s eyes closed. She really was terribly old. Sam wondered how she could ever have guessed otherwise. “As you wish.”
History, once and future, is a great and terrible spectacle. Color ebbs and flows, yet always returns to the world, rosy glitters of dawn on blue river water and purple dusk deepening behind mountain ranges, a rotation of light and shadow that chase generations across this quick-spinning globe.
The bird’s eye view from Mei-Li’s little blue ship grants Sam a remarkable view. You don’t appreciate it, really, the peculiar little miracles of mortal life, until they’re stretched out before you, wiggling, winking in and out of existence like fireflies at summertime. And yet they live on, gathered as many, gathered as one. Spines curved toward each other, clinging to their foolish, endless joy in the temporary, skin on skin.
Someone else’s pulse beats to life in Sam’s memory like a cheesy rock beat. Sam closes her eyes. “Okay,” she tells Mei-Li, her face turned toward the spin of the world below, the magnificent sprawl of time. “I’m ready to go home.”
“For your laundry?”
Sam smiles without opening her eyes. “Not quite.”
The world tilted.
Mei-Li knew what Sam meant. But then, perhaps she’d always known.
Max’s doomed little pub in its doomed little city sits at the farthest edge of the Wall, the red of its stoop a beacon in the face of encroaching grey, as the drums of invasion beat toward that little burst of scarlet. Sam lands on the stoop in a heap, gasping, shouldering her way through the pub’s doors. She runs blind until she spots what she’s looking for.
A boy watercolored in blue and copper like a painting leans over the open window, half-backlit by looming grey. Shadows stretch toward him, but he’s serene, gold burning behind the brown of his eyes.
Sam’s so tired, and the scars on her hands and ears ache. Still, she cups her worn-down palms around her mouth, and bellows louder than the Hands of Grey would ever allow, “Max!”
And there, he’s looking at her now, eyes gone bright on the girl stumbling toward him, her hands outstretched, gold-washed skin bleeding out color as she wades through shadow toward light.
“You came back,” says Max.
Color’s beginning to fade from him too, washing out the soft blue lapels of his Henley, erasing the red wine stain. Pallor sets into his face, but his hands, when his fingers curl around hers, are copper-painted still, twining with gold.
“Someone who loved me called me beauty once,” Sam tells him. “It was the first time I understood what it meant, for language to carry color. Will you hold the Wall, Max?”
He smiles, fierce as the curve of his hands through hers, fierce as skin on skin. “For as long as I–for as long as we can.”
The smile remains, even as the final drop of pigment drains from them both, Sam’s eyes open and defiant the entire time, refusing to dip the last of technicolor into darkness a moment too soon.
A time traveler’s secret: time forgets us all.
The people whose fingers we hold, though, multiplied through the too-rapid spin of the world, those tiny, temporary miracles made real between our skin, frisson specific to me and you: this, even time cannot erase.
The woman in the sundress is terribly old. You can tell by the strange pigment to the fabric: something formerly colorless, dyed a ridiculous electric blue that doesn’t suit the cut at all. She’s a refugee, probably, from the old days when the Hands of Grey held the Walled City, reigning supreme over practically the entire world. It would explain the desperate, garish splatter of color in her clothes. Tacky, maybe, but understandable, all things considered.
Still, the woman doesn’t seem to care when you scoff at her. She doesn’t seem to care for much at all, in fact, her hair a wild mess of black-dyed strands and shining silver, her wrinkled face nut-brown. Still, she smiles like a secret, mouth a slash of red, which she angles–along with her unflinching, spectacled gaze–toward the statue.
It’s two figures, made abstract by the hodgepodge mix of copper and gold and bronze that comprise their entwined limbs. No particular features render their faces recognizable, and so the statue remains anonymous: simply two people caught in an embrace, frozen in time by metallically-cast color, practically blinding beneath the summer sun. It’s a relic from the days when people first woke from the grasp of the Hands of Grey, when they remembered that people used to live and die for reasons beyond the colorless crack of a whip.
The woman smiles that red-painted smile at the statue’s embrace. You’d almost think she recognized those desperately twined figures, understood what moved them toward each other for this one fragment of a moment.
Then the woman, too, walks on, her dress blinking blue in a sea of color, as she makes her way toward a blue-glowing spaceship, waiting still on the peripheries of the city.