From the author: You've been traveling in time so long that you no longer know when is home. You've thought there are other time-travelers, though you've rarely met them. Now, you have the chance to discover the truth.
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You've snuck through doors that should have been locked to get here. Here, the subway station is silent, the kind of silence that comes deep underground, isolated from the hum of the human hive overhead. No electric lights. No neon. No vibrations. No voices. Not even a breath of moving air.
You’ve been in many such stations before; you’re ready, prepared. Heavy backpack of gear digging into your shoulders. Fingerless gloves, a frayed duster, steel-toed boots, the tread of which echoes back dully from the walls.
Sunlight streams in through skylights overhead, leaded panes set in loops and whorls like fleur-de-lis. The gold of the ancient brickwork warms to your touch, and the tunnel curves off into the distance like the spine of a living creature.
But the tracks lead into darkness. They always do, except when you’re on the trains.
You dig out the map you’ve been working on. As frayed around the edges as your duster. As your sanity sometimes feels. You check the red line against the violet one. Past and future, twining around each other. Check it against the faded map on the wall. The actual metro line map wouldn’t have been a help, but others have been through here. Others like you. They’ve left paint on the map, sketching in the track lines that they’ve mapped. Some of them tally with your own. Others trail off towards destinations that might not even exist. Some trackers are like that—they set up false trails. Give false information, to keep others away from what they’ve really found. You’ve done it yourself, once or twice.
And of course, some destinations that used to exist, don’t anymore. It’s the way things are.
This station's been unused for decades, or so it seems. It's a piece of the past, locked down forever. You can't see signs of anything more recent than 1955. No debris, no crumpled beds of old newspapers used by rats or bums.
The few homeless that have broken past the locked access doors never make it far into the system. It’s from one of them that you first heard about the abandoned tunnels. You remember it as if it were yesterday, and in a real way, it was—a yesterday that’s lasted a thousand years. Wild, disordered hair, concealing the face beneath a nondescript hat. A checked shirt, probably picked up at a Goodwill, or from an unmonitored donation bin—you’ve worn the same, many times. An overcoat so weathered, its original color had faded to gray, swallowing the figure. The clothes, the miasma of homelessness, erasing, effacing, all signs of identity.
But tight fingers caught your wrist. “You’d best be careful which stations you get off at, down there. Set a step wrong, and you’ll find yourself far from home.”
No request for loose change. No smell of booze on the breath. No reek of week-old sweat. Bright eyes suddenly peering from beneath that curtain of unkempt hair.
You’d pulled your hand back, detesting this invasion of your space. “I can find my way home just fine.”
“I know who you are. I know what you are. If you’re not careful, you’ll turn out just like me, you hear?” The hands had trembled. “Don’t get obsessed with finding the ones who built the secret tunnels. The ones who figured out how to travel time. It’s a fool’s errand. I should know. I’m one of the fools who’s looked for them for a lifetime or three.”
And then the figure had shambled off. Easy enough to discount the ramblings as madness, lunacy, drugs, and yet, the words had been so sharp. The eyes so clear.
Bored teens sometimes explore the system. Certainly, you did, once you figured out the trick of it. And since you haven’t aged much, you might technically still qualify as a bored teen, though you certainly don’t feel like one anymore.
You’d started to notice a hesitation between the seconds on your watch down in the tunnels of the regular subway. A little hitch, a stutter, in which the world seemed to go white. The first time was the hardest—ignoring the other passengers, forcing the doors open between stations, waiting for the flicker—and then timing your step out with that flicker of whiteness. Took guts, or some foolish intimation of immortality. And then you’d found yourself on one of the other platforms. You’d wended your way back up to street level, and found yourself in 1911, dressed like a teen from your own era.
You were lucky—it had been midnight. Few travelers, no police.
And then, for time out of time, traveling the rails, riding the empty trains that seemed to lead to nowhere. Never meeting other trackers—or just catching sight of them on a platform. Sprinting to catch up with them, only to find them vanished? It became a way of life.
At first, you didn’t really commit to it. You only explored on weekends. Then it became an all-consuming obsession. You took your instructions from the hidden graffiti. Your only guide, the only proof that there were others like you. Your sole consolation.
The others exist. Some of them must go home again. And some of them never can. Caught, perhaps, when a reality blinks out of existence.
Oh, yes. Realities can evaporate. A twig that gets sucked back into the main branch of its timestream when a tracker meddles, or when the differences between the two realities hit some diminishing level of return—you’re not sure quite how it works, but you’ve occasionally headed back to find a when and a where that you’d been particularly fond of—Sleepy Hollow’s debut in New York, 1948, for instance—only to find it missing from the station map, while it remains recorded on your hand-drawn one. In the case of Sleepy Hollow, the stop was still there, but when you got to street level, no one had ever heard of the play. Tramping back down the stairs, you’d compared your map to the station’s and it had taken a while to realize that while the year was the same, the kiosk map now had an asterisk beside it in red Sharpie. The universal sign, you eventually figured out, for time-line shifted.
You’d annotated your map. And when you’d found a similar kiosk again, without the asterisk, you’d done your fellow trackers a service and put the asterisk in, yourself. You’ve done that dozens, maybe hundreds of times. Letting everyone know that reality’s been disrupted.
You know the system isn’t really a train station. That’s just the analog that your brain provides to let you interact with the system. The tracks are timelines, red to violet and back again. The trains, a method of traveling them, built by some future civilization that you know nothing about—not even after traveling their rails for . . . however long you’ve traveled them. No matter how far into the violet line you’ve pressed, how many branches along its twisting paths you’ve explored, you’ve never found the Builders. Just as that first tracker prophesized. Nor have you found traces of Them in the distant past. They’re a mystery. The whole system is. One you’ve struggled to solve for years. Decades? Longer?
You’ve got time before the next train arrives. Time. The thought makes you choke back a laugh. Nothing but time.
In the restroom of this particular platform, you find the graffiti that's been missing on platform’s walls. Bit of a relief, really, to see these familiar conflicting scrawls. You’ve given in to the urge to pencil the walls yourself, oppressed by the silence of so rarely speaking with others. To write on these walls is to send message to the only other people who could possibly understand what and who you are, what you’ve experienced. A shout into the void, hear me, know me, and answer!
These mirrors have been effaced with it, painted over and over, as if the taggers couldn't bear to see their own reflections. Thick, swaggering letters in yellow and red, boldly declaring JUSTCOZ and NOZEN and KNOWHEN (followed by ‘to say when,’ a joke from another decade, another century). You snort—you’ve made that joke before. Comfortable familiarity.
JUSTCOZ? Trackers who change reality, change history, just because they feel like it. Chaotic. Whimsical. Or perhaps just weary of their endless lives tracing the tracks. Trying to find their way back to a home reality that might now never have been. Or sometimes, JUSTCAUSE. Those who act because they feel that reality has been twisted. That some outcome was unjust. Some trying to undo the work of Justcoz. Others, trying, genuinely, to make the world a better place. But in so doing, calving off new realities from the base, like bergs from polar ice.
Your fingers trace the letters, memories flooding though you. Realities that can simply evaporate, when conditions are right. Erasing lives, decisions, discoveries, all of it. Your hands shake. You’ve painted that sigil before. In rebellion. In anger. You’d had a lover on one of the timelines—it might have been 1955 or so. They were supposed to marry someone of their own era. Supposed to have a couple of kids that were going to change the world. You didn’t remember your own era has having been all that great, and you were in love. Fuck reality, you’d thought. I’m staying in this when. I’m never going back to the lines. You’d gone back just once in that period, to scrawl on the walls, Justcoz . . . because to hell with it all. There was no point in looking for the Builders. There was a point in human connection. In the touch of a human hand, holding yours. All the warmth and love you’d never found in your own time. Fuck time, fuck the Builders, and fuck the rules. I’m staying right here. Right now.
Except when your lover died, there was nothing to keep you in that when, and when you returned to the system, older, wiser, and hurting inside, you found that there were now two stations for this era where there’d just been one before. An unexpected inheritance of your love—a brand new baby reality, just enough different from the rest, by virtue of the fact that now, a particularly famous set of scientists wouldn’t be/hadn’t been born.
You hadn’t even known about that. You’d had to go forward along the violet line far enough to get internet access and look up your lover online.
You even considered going back to your own timeline, but when you went to look for it, you couldn’t find it. Dread in the pit of your stomach. Maybe someone else erased my reality. Maybe it’s all evaporated, too.
Addled with the notion that your own reality had been erased, you decided to tip over the apple cart and make yourself a reality that you could stand to live in. You couldn’t go back to your original reality. Going back to the time when your lover was alive? Being your own third wheel? Seeing them again after holding their hand as they died? Intolerable.
There’s a cause worth fighting for, you reckoned, and stenciled in JUSTCAUSE as you disembarked. The scrawl of the system. Defiance of the others, whoever and wherever—ha, whenever they were.
You’d start by preventing the assassination of a president. Change the world, bit by bit. Little things and big things.
But just as you made it up to street level, you saw writing on the walls, NoZen, the catchphrase of those trackers who want to keep the past and the future pristine. No Zen. No peace for you, if you alter reality. If you leave the station and change the timeline, effacing, erasing thousands, perhaps millions of lives, with one simple action? We’ll track you down for it.
Sure enough, a homeless person huddled by the exit caught your arm as you emerged into sunlight, blinking. A whisper in your ear, “Go back. The last time someone did it, the young president survived the attack, and determined that the assassin had been a Soviet spy. A third world war, devastating. And in each new reality, the ghosts of those who now never will be born, whispering. Haunting us. Go look down the next track division, if you don’t believe me . . . .”
It had been such a rare thing to meet another tracker. Up close like this, not just a shambling figure on the opposite side of a track, or receding into the distance. You’d wanted to ask questions, but the hand had shoved you back towards the stairs, and when you’d turned to speak, the other tracker was gone.
So you turned back. You visited that alternate reality, with its fallout zones and mutations, and got back on the train before the radiation could kill you.
You couldn’t go so far as to join with NoZen—not yet. But you took up with the Knowhen faction, at least for a time. Know when you are. Know who the people around you are. Know how it’s supposed to go. Be informed. Don’t get to know anyone, no matter how much you ache inside for the touch of a human hand to ease your loneliness. Knowledge is the ultimate goal, ultimate power, and that’s why we run these lines. Knowledge of the Builders—they write each other teasing hints on the walls, of having found discarded pieces of futuretech. You’ve found pieces, too, like the stasis-gun that locks people in place, invisible to others not occupying their time-bubble, and keeps them there for eight to ten hours. A handy thing, shoved in your belt at the small of your back. You haven’t committed its existence to the tunnel walls, though. You never know when you might need to use it.
And even during those periods when you’ve thought that the NoZen trackers have a point . . . they don’t need to know you have it.
Now, your fingers touch where even these bold tags have been covered over by thinner, more frantic writing, dug in with the end of a pen, scored into the original paint like cuneiform. The words here speak of darkness that lives. You’ve seen that, heard the chorus of a thousand voices whispering in the air. Tracker voices, you suspect, overlapping the same time, but somehow out of step with one another.
But here? Desperate writing that you’ve never catalogued before: A thousand echoes are just one voice. There are no others. There’s only one, and we’re it. Are we the Builders?
You frown over the paranoid ramblings. Take a picture of it with the phone you grabbed from a tourist in 2035—the battery life and storage are phenomenal. Of course, part of that is because for you, no time actually passes as you travel the trains from platform to platform. Though you have an impression of duration, there’s no real way for the battery to drain. Still, you like the slim thing, so much better than your last one.
And then you head back to the tracks, the platform. Feel the hum of the approaching train in your feet and knees. Empty platform, though. As usual.
It’s odd that you’ve rarely seen other trackers. You know them immediately, however. There’s a kind of uniform—dusters, boots, worn jeans. A nondescript hat, suitable for any era. The sort of outfit that would get you shunned as a working-class slob from the 1880s to the 1940s, but that fades into the background from 1950 up till 2050. If you push further into the violet, you need to steal different clothes from people up at street level. A jacket of living silk, with its photosynthetic cells, for instance, goes a long way towards anonymity in the far-future.
The far past? Find someone’s laundry line. Mid-century, a donation bin or Salvation Army shop, after begging for change from passers-by. You can’t rely on money from one era having the right dates on it. And god help you if you’ve gone down the wrong track and Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Roosevelt were never president. Those coins and bills will get you in trouble.
Another good rule of thumb? Keep your mouth shut as much as possible in the past. The accent of the future is noticeable, and your slang’s all wrong.
The train pulls up. It matches its station for era, as you’ve come to expect. The doors open, and you step in, looking back over your shoulder. And for an instant, you think, Yes. I’ve been to this station before. Even though it wasn’t marked on my map. I’ve seen this view, from this angle, exactly so. Haven’t I? Or is that just . . . déjà vu?
You stare out the windows as the doors slide closed. Familiar white surge. When the doors open, you can see that the sign outside reads 1963. A figure on the platform—gray, frayed duster, blue jeans. Nondescript hat, moving towards the stairs at a determined clip. Ah, hell. That’s one of us. Probably here to prevent the assassination. Better scotch that before some NoZen tracker catches up. One nastier than the last one that caught me, anyway.
And yet, something else impels your feet more quickly over the car’s carpeted floor. This could someone to talk to, perhaps. Someone to hear, to understand. You leap to the platform before the train’s fully stopped moving, but can’t catch up with the other. No matter. You take the stasis-gun from your belt and fire it, knocking the other out of time for eight hours of stasis. They’ll never know that they missed anything, since they didn’t get topside to get a look at local time. Eight hours is more than enough for you to hit street level, verify the date. Go through your available cash to see if you’ve got the right type, beg some off strangers if you don’t, get some pie and coffee around the corner, and squat back down at the entrance.
And after a short wait at the entrance, you catch the other by the arm, preventing the tracker from leaving the station. A startled look from behind the long hair. What a kid. But hey, I’ve been there. We all have been, I think.
The speech cues up, just as you’ve been practicing it. But your voice is so rusty from disuse, it’s hard to form the words. “Go back. The last time someone did it, the young president survived the attack, and determined that the assassin had been a Soviet spy—“
And then a nebulous sort of realization hits you. The words from the last station, inked on the wall. A thousand echoes are just one voice. There are no others.
The other tracker is you. Hell, the homeless tramp who first told you about the tunnels could’ve been you, too, and you’d never have known it.
You need time to think about this. You stare at the younger you’s face, and know you can’t even talk about this with yourself. What little continuity you have left would be utterly fucked by that. So no matter how much you want to, how desperately you want to speak, to tell yourself that the sense of despair they currently feel is nothing compared to the existential dread now hitting your system, you deliver your old message to yourself. Zap the other with the stasis-gun again, and, from their perspective, disappear.
From your own, you simply trudge back down the stairs to the platform. Each step echoing the mantra reverberating in your head: Shit. Shit. Shit.
The words in the graffiti haunt you. Written, now that you think about it, in handwriting much like your own—distorted by the pen that had gouged them into the painted wall. There are no others. There’s only one, and we’re it.
The voices echoing in pockets in some of the stations—you thought they were other trackers, out of step with you in time. Could they all really be you, or is this thought just an exercise in total egomania?
The train blurs away, faster than light. Faster than time.
When the doors open again, duration having continued for you, if not actual time, you swear under your breath. You need to find the Builders. You need to know if there are really any others out there, beside yourself. You exit the train and scrawl a message on the station map in bold letters. Let’s find a time to meet. Some of us want to talk. Let’s say March 5, 1979?
You can’t remember seeing this one before. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get some takers. Or you’ll wind up going there a dozen times, from different points along the line. Or some other timeline’s versions of you have been traversing the line with you.
There’s no way to know till you get then. And maybe, even then, you won’t get answers till you find the Builders. Wherever, whenever, whoever they are.
Are we the Builders? Am I?
The question haunts you. Haunted you. Will haunt you. You don’t see how it’s possible. Maybe if you continue straight down the violet into the future, you’ll . . . fall right off the tracks, where they don’t even exist yet? In a time with the technology to build them? Can that be? Do you even dare?
And by whatever god there might be . . . if you ever find the Builders—even if they turn out to be you—you’re going to have some questions for them.
This story originally appeared in The Overcast.