illustration by Dana Martin

Playing Prometheus

Frances Rowat

I found "Playing Prometheus" by Frances Rowat a comfort to read in our current political climate. In it, a group of old women friends use a time machine to right wrongs, but, as always with these things, at a cost. What would you be willing to give up so that others could have a better life? (Content note for descriptions of a physically violent hate crime near the beginning.)

When you are as old as Mo and Diana and me, when you have passed fifty and sixty is knocking politely on your door, you expect to be ignored. Maybe not in your field—Mo especially, no-one will ever ignore Professor Maureen Wittgenstein even if they laugh and still call her Maurice—but otherwise, you become invisible. Except someone had seen Diana for what she was, my stubborn sad friend, and broken her weak bones, and set her alight, and so at quarter to three on Saturday morning Diana was fifty-three hours dead and Mo and I were sitting and crying around the time machine.

I was there because the job’s pro-rated and I couldn’t give up the hours. Mo was there because I was. The beer was there because Mo knew it was the kind Diana and I had liked to drink if one of us had a three-payday month.

It might have been there, too, because Mo knew no-one would be around, and knows I’m qualified to do more than they pay me for. That’s not a technician bragging; that’s a woman with degrees in Physics and Systems Engineering who spent seventeen years straightening her hair and hammering on the bottom of the org charts. In year eighteen, I quit trying to get past the technician title and stopped hammering. I’d told Diana I was giving up and cried on her shoulder and she’d held me and told me she was so sorry. Mo would have done the same, except she would have been angry for me too. Sometimes that’s just too exhausting.

Seven years ago and I can still remember how Diana held me.

“Jesus,” I said into my beer, “Diana,” and then I was crying again. Mo handed me a tissue and a glass of water.

“I want to go back,” she said, and I choked on the water.

We know how going back works; it’s straightforward, in theory. If it’s three in the morning on Saturday and you go back to Wednesday night, you’ll get there knowing everything from the now. You could call the police, give them a reason to go to a street where a woman was walking home alone after closing up. And then they’d be there, and she wouldn’t be jeered at and cornered and no-one would throw the first punch. No-one would kick her while she was down and her blood would not be on anyone’s boots and it would all be okay. You could smoke a cigarette without throwing up because you suddenly flashed on the idea of her trying to crawl out of her own fire with a broken hip.

But when the time machine stopped impelling you back into the past and you came back to a better Saturday where your friend wasn’t dead, you’d disappear from wherever you were in that better world and you’d appear at the time machine as it spat you out. Your recollections of the old past and the new would set up destructive interference, wiping each other out wherever they differed and leaving gaping wounds in your memory, pieces of you that had been unhappened. As far back as you’d travelled, you wouldn’t remember that your friend was killed, and you wouldn’t remember that she was alive.

Also if you were caught there would be lot of questions asked as they tried to figure out what you might have gone back for. The questions would not be asked nicely. And then there’d be an execution.

“How can you do that.” I meant, how can you dare. How can you dare when I can’t.

Maureen’s hands were laced together behind her neck. She’s tall, and when she does that she straightens further, and lifts her chin, and only someone who’s known her as long as Diana or I have knows that she is doing it so her hands don’t shake.

“If I go now,” she said, “I’ll come back to now. They set your schedule at the start of the month. You’ll be here. This time on Saturday, I’ll probably be at home. No-one’ll see me go.”

“I won’t know why you went back.” Because I won’t forget anything. I’ll just be living in a world where Diana wasn’t murdered. “What if I turn you in?”

“Would you?” Mo spread her hands. They were only shaking a very little now. “Do this and we can save her.”

I thought of Diana holding me, seven years ago. I thought of how badly my head was hurting, because it had been two days without a cigarette and I couldn’t stop crying. I thought that next month was going to be a three-payday month and I’d already been looking forward to spending a Saturday night with her, killing a couple of six-packs and laughing like two old women can and...

I was halfway through the Friday eleven to seven shift, which is the loneliest of the lot, when the time machine lit up and spat Mo out.

She looked like she was on fire. Not like she’d been set on fire; she looked like fire was running over her skin like spilled beer running across a table, foaming and spreading. Tachyon breakdown, the decay of shifted time.

I’ve seen people come through before, but only on tape. And Jesus, never anyone I knew

And because it was Mo, I killed the alarm.

I’ve known Maureen—not Maurice, no matter what it says on her birth certificate, you don’t call your friends names they hate—for years. One of my two best friends.

But people know she’s my friend. If they found out she came out of the machine on my shift, they’d figure she must have gone in on my shift. They’d blame me. At best I’d lose my job and I’d be an idiot to bet on the best possible outcome.

I hated her for a minute, then, as she clung to the portal and looked around, her face muzzy with shock. She’d probably been asleep, at home in bed, when she’d been snapped from there to here by the time-traveling that another her had done. I crossed the room, all the air smelling of ozone and licorice from the tachyon decay, and hooked one of her arms over my shoulder, and pulled her back to the little alcove where whoever’s on duty sits to watch the floor.

She started to wake up properly as I dumped her in the desk chair.

“What the hell,” she said, crossing her arms over herself and looking up at me. “What— Vonnie.” Her eyes focused, catalogued the grimy little alcove, recognized it. She’d been here before, stopping by to see me. Hardly anyone outside the division could do that, but Mo was the crown jewel of the campus, a shining systems neurogeneticist. She used up most of the slack that earned her just by existing, but she had enough left over to visit on a coffee break sometimes. “What’d I do?”

“How the hell could I know?” Okay, that wasn’t helpful. “Shit, Mo. I need to clean this up. Stay here.” And I went and hammered away at the computer until I was sure there was nothing it could tell anyone except the things I needed it to say.

They won’t give me a better job than maintenance technician, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t do one.

I came back to find that she had pulled on my coat, which at least got rid of the awkwardness of her being naked, and cleaned up a bit. Nothing annoying, just picked up the trash that missed the garbage can, straightened the desk. She was shuffling the leave slips into order by date when I walked in. I’d told her last week about how I hated it when Bryce and McConey slipped theirs in partway through the pile instead of leaving them on top.

If she remembered that, she probably hadn’t gone further back than last week. Okay.

“Keep my coat,” I said. “Take a cab home.” I don’t know how often she changed her doorcode, but I did know that her building would let her in on voice recognition and she’d be fine after that. “Just... go back to sleep.”

She hadn’t gone back to knock over a bank or make the kind of political statement that involves accelerant or explosives—this was Mo, after all—so no-one was going to be looking into what she did. Maybe my house burned down. Maybe Diana got hit by a car. It’s not important now, it didn’t happen. The only ones who knew she’d gone back were her and me, and neither of us knew why. So I was hoping it’d never come up again.

I should be so lucky.

I remember one week, the summer before last, when I’d already driven my car to the limit and Maureen was giving me a lift to pick up groceries. The store clerks were about as polite as you’d expect.

“Mo?” I said as we were filling the trunk. “Did you ever think about changing yourself?”

“You know people like me don’t get approval for that.”

“No. So you don’t want to be a woman.” She looked at me blankly, fingers crisped around a bag of rice. “Look, I get that you are.” Gender’s not a body part. If it was, you’d start calling vets it when they got stuck with cheap-ass reconstruction and came back in doll-bodies. Not saying people don’t do that, but... Jesus, a little respect.

Mo could afford real reconstruction. That summer her division had released the latest brand of security dog, and they were about to get the defense contract on selective hate and aggression, although half the people she worked with didn’t know it yet. She didn’t profit directly, of course, but there were bonuses.

But she was right. People like her don’t ever get approved.

“I just thought— You weren’t born like you want to be. Wouldn’t it be easier if you didn’t think you needed to change?”

“That’s horrible.” She said it conversationally—I almost never heard Mo raise her voice—but she was looking at me as if there were three panes of glass between us and she was glad of the barrier, and I bridled.

“How is it different than helping someone with depression?” I knew one of her colleagues had studied that for a while.

“Do you think I need help?” A little bite, under the even tone.

“No.” She’s not broken, any more than Diana. She’s not wired to hurt herself or anyone else, any more than we all are. “But you’re wanting something you can’t get. If you can’t ever get it, and it just makes people hate you, why wouldn’t you change it?”

Mo smiled a little, not happily, and put the rice in the trunk. “Eppur si muove.” She shrugged, stiffly. “It’s a true thing, and not a bad one.”

“You know he probably never said that,” I said as we got into the car.

“I still try to.”

I got a letter in the mail on Monday. Prepaid plastic envelope, postmarked Wednesday. Third-class mail is slow, but it’s cheap.

thank you for being there

couldn’t have gotten through D being murdered w/o you

It wasn’t signed. But since Diana hadn’t been murdered, and I couldn’t think of another “D”, I guessed that was what Mo had changed. Gone back and saved our friend, and sent a grey little thank-you through the mail so that I’d know what I’d done it for.

I was angry, again. Not because Mo’d done it—the thought of Diana dying made my throat lock up, and I had to sit down for a bit. I was angry because Mo had told me, and I didn’t want to know. I started trying to imagine who could have done it, and how, and kept shying away from the possible details.

It wasn’t that it didn’t care it had almost been true. I just didn’t like to think of it happening. I didn’t see the use.

Maureen came by one day when I was getting off shift. Her division works on the glossy end of the campus, because if the neurogenetic mechanisms of social interaction were being modified by people who didn’t work in elegant, well-appointed research centers then someone might get nervous. They work a lot more hours than I do and have much stricter regulations governing their contracts than a mere technician. But if Mo’s leaving work and it matches my schedule, it’s nothing for her to stop at the coffee-shop in the corporate center and pick up fancy coffee or something sweet.

She came by that day with sweet-smelling coffee and fennel cookies in a paper bag. I didn’t think anything of it, and was just finishing my shift report when she said casually “You remember the trip I took? You picked me up when I came back?”

“Three a.m.,” I said as my mouth went dry. Mo, Mo, why are you talking about this? We need to forget it.

“Did I set anything up?” She looked stiff, waiting to crumple, as if her clothes were holding her up. Always neatly tailored suits, always in dull quiet colors. If I had her salary, I would dress better than she does, at least outside work; I’m old, but I am still here. And then I remember that she spends money on getting me drinks or lunch or maybe helping Diana patch up her apartment more often than she spends it on her own clothes, and I wish I could be a little more generous and a little less jealous.

“You sent me a note.” I shrugged into my coat and took the coffee she offered me. Started walking, out the door and into the grim grid of the campus, and she followed.


I tucked the coffee into the crook of my arm, lit a cigarette. My throat felt raw and scratchy, and I pulled defiantly on the smoke. “You said she was murdered.” Thin dry words in the cold air; the sound of our footsteps was louder.

I’d been thinking about it, a little. There were a lot of things that could’ve happened to Diana that wouldn’t’ve been so good. She’s been our friend for ages, even if Maureen’s braver about it that I am. It’s easier for her. She’s got a really good job; she’s valuable. She’s brave enough to be seen in public with Diana, even with people knowing that Diana’s gay. It came out in university, and Diana never managed to get clean of the reputation. I felt bad for her. I mean, everyone gets those ideas in university. My family laughed about girls like that.

If they’d ever had any idea I was thinking about... anything like that, it wouldn’t have been laughter. Knowing that helped me keep my head on straight.

She’s just my friend.

I think it must have been really bad. I know that Maureen’s had people she cared about die before. She’s even cried with me sometimes. But she’s never seriously talked about using the time machine, and she’s never come out of it any other time.

We walked along in silence for a bit. The coffee had a little bit of ginger syrup in it.

“You’re okay?” Maureen said, quietly. “No-one’s started watching you since, you think no-one knows?”

“Sure,” I said, gesturing with the coffee. And because I wanted to know how far back I’d sent her, and because she is my friend, I asked “What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Walking to work Thursday morning,” she said. “I remember getting in. Then I suppose someone must have called me to let me know about Diana.” And that would be when her memory unhappened, of course. Things were already different for Diana, but Maureen wouldn’t forget until they became different for her.

I wondered who’d called me, and how it had felt to be told. I couldn’t imagine.

The seasons gritted past, and Maureen called one morning to say she’d pick up lunch and bring it over before I started work. She did that sometimes, but today when she walked in she didn’t smile to see me. She’d brought over Chinese and that beer Diana and I liked.

Lunch was good but it sat in my stomach like a greased rock. I was wondering if she was going to confess about the time machine to someone. I was sure she wouldn’t, but if she did...

“Mo,” I said, after we’d both put down our forks. “What is it?”

She looked at me for a minute. “I’m going to cure contempt.”

“Contempt?” For a second I thought she meant the defense contract had taken a hard right swerve, was working on reducing dissent in the ranks or something.

But she looked so drawn and hollow, and she never talked about the defense work.

“Uhm, Mo,” and then I was at a loss for useful words. “Wait. Are you sure? You can’t—” I had no idea what would happen if she got caught trying to do whatever she was thinking of. At the least she’d be quietly disappeared and then publicly executed. I began thinking of the kind of prisoner treatment you only catch the edges of in high-profile trials. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Of course I know,” she said, lacing her hands together behind her neck and leaning back, too tired to even brace herself. There was a little exasperation in her voice. “There’ll still be compassion,” she said. “This isn’t some science fiction horror story where you take away the fear response and suddenly everyone’s a rioting sociopath. There’ll still be disagreement, anger, even hate. I can’t touch hate; that’s too grand and too complex. But I can make it harder to look at someone and think they’re less. How is that bad?”

“Some people deserve contempt,” I said, and then she did straighten, eyes shining liquidly.

“So I’ve heard.”

“I didn’t mean you,” I said, trying to swallow back the guilt.

She smiled as if I owed her something, and it didn’t make her look any less exhausted. “So help me, Vonnie.”

I felt all the blood fall out of my face.

“Mo,” I said very softly. “Don’t— You can’t do that.” Have people treat you differently, react differently to them, make months or years of different memories. And then come back, and your old memories and your new don’t match...

So much history, unhappened in your mind.

“Why go back?” I said. “Why not just do it now?”

“Because I can do better if you help, Vonnie,” she said. “If I go back, I can start it earlier. It’ll be easier for me to spread it. Right now I need to file a travel plan to leave the state. No-one who doesn’t work at the airport ever goes there without a ticket or someone to meet. Most of the time I can’t get authorization to travel to a conference when I could be telepresent. Thirty years ago, forty years ago...”

“Jesus.” The timescale she was talking about made me dizzy. I looked down at my hands, how wrinkled they’d grown in a handful of decades. “Mo. This is— this is suicide, Mo. What if I’m not at the machine? What if I never was? Even if you don’t get shot, you won’t be there anymore.”

“But things will be better.”

“But different.” I guess it wouldn’t be worse, generally. But what if someone smarter but not as stubborn didn’t get scared off from applying for my job? What if I thought it was okay to make a stupid mistake in university because no-one’d give me grief over it?

What would it do to me?

“Yes,” she said. “It’ll be different. You won’t know it was different, and I’ll forget, but it will be. We don’t do this, nothing changes. And if we do...”

Mo finally unlaced one of her hands from behind her neck, picked up her beer. “You helped me make it better for Diana,” she said, and I flinched. “Help me again. For her, for others. What must have happened—” Her voice dropped, but her words stayed measured. “Vonnie, you can’t be okay with that, can you? Just because it doesn’t always happen to her?”

I wanted to slap her, or scream that we didn’t know what had happened, and I did neither. She gave me a minute, and handed me a napkin to wipe at my eyes. She knew bringing up Diana was going to upset me.

I wondered how long she’d been thinking about this. If she’d sent the cheap little letter so I’d know I’d already helped change things once.

“You’re going to lose so much,” I said, blowing my nose. “If you do it this way—”

“If I do it this way,” she said, “I’ll live to see it. You could live in a world like that. Diana could.”

I finished my beer all at once and it went down hard and the bubbles went up the back of my throat and stung my nose.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. How far back do you want to go?”

Maureen came out of the time machine today. She looked like every pore in her skin was breathing out fire and air and light, and at first I didn’t recognize her under the cool flames. Then they began to clear and I saw her face, and I was running down the stairs from the observatory balcony outside my office with my heart clogging my throat.

She looked at me and the first thing she said was “Vonnie,” and then “What’s wrong with you,” reaching out to touch my face, and then she saw her own hand, and looked down at herself, and began making high gasping noises. Sounds of shock. I covered her with my suit jacket and sat with her until she was steadier. Ruiz had called a counselor and security, but he kept them busy downloading and certifying the logs so we could have a little privacy. Maureen always hated falling apart in front of people.

I wasn’t sure if that would have changed. But she recognized me, and let me put an arm around her shoulder. Whatever she’d lost, we were still friends, at least.

“You don’t understand,” she said before she left. “I’m beautiful. But I’m old.”

“We’re both old, Maurie,” I said.

I left the department early that day. People understood. Maureen Wittgenstein has been my friend since I was first at university, and there was no way of knowing how much of that she’d lost.

She stood up with me when Diana and I were married; it was a new thing, then.

“I wish she hadn’t gone so far back,” I said to Diana that night as she brought out two beers, sat next to me on the couch after Boddy had finally gone to sleep. He’d picked up enough to be anxious, and kept getting up to ask when Aunt Maurie’d come over again. Promises of visiting her as soon as we were able had finally kept him in bed long enough to drop uneasily off. Tomorrow would be exhausting.

Diana shook her head. “Do you know how far?”

“Not exactly.” I was turning the beer in my hands, watching the light slip around the glass. “But she was shocked at how I looked, at her age. Far enough that the last time she remembers me, or herself, we looked different. She didn’t... she’d forgotten we were old.”

Diana sat with her arm around me for a while, and I leaned against her and felt her breath stir our air. “Do you think you sent her back?”

“I don’t know.” I put the beer down, picked it up again, as if the bottle could belch forth answers if I handled it enough. “I hope not. If something seemed so bad that she thought she had to do that to fix it, and I couldn’t help her, I at least hope I didn’t help her erase herself.”

“You don’t know what happened to her,” Diana said, and I closed my eyes and just felt her hold me for a little, and it helped. “It might have been that bad. I’m sure you did everything you could.”

I shrugged a little. We’d never know. We have no way of telling, and the part of Maureen that could have told us is gone. That’s how it works.

“I only,” and I stopped to take a drink and lean harder against her, warming myself with her presence. It helps to set things out to Diana; to say a thing and have it heard by her, to not be alone. “I just can’t imagine what could have been worth giving up so much.”

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